“I look like an imposter.”
I tug at the hem of my red cocktail dress. On Saturday evenings, I’m usually dressed in ripped jeans or yoga pants, not a figure-hugging red dress. But tonight’s the night of my mom’s welcome home party, hosted by my sister Naomi. Spandex and denim just won’t cut it.
I scale the massive marble stairs at the entrance of Naomi’s house. An impressive feat in my four-inch nude heels.
Rob squeezes my hand as he keeps pace with me, his shiny black wingtips a stark contrast to the white stone below. “Stop. You look stunning.”
Normally I’d deny or downplay, but not after the look he shoots me. His hazel eyes do a slow scan of my body. His gaze floats to my legs, my hips, my chest, ending at my face. That familiar gleam is back. It makes the discomfort of this dress worth it. He looks at me that way every single time he wants to me to drop what I’m doing and meet him in bed. Or the shower. Or the couch. Or the kitchen counter.
I smirk to myself, then bite my lip to keep myself under control. We walk through the massive mahogany double doors, and a wave of music and chatter hits us. I do a quick scan of the crowd. Relatives mixed in with Naomi’s work colleagues and friends. Every time I enter my sister’s mini mansion, I have to remind myself not to stare too much. It’s five thousand-plus square feet of marble and granite for just three people. A grand staircase leads from the grotesquely huge entryway to the second and third floors. The chandelier hanging in the foyer is made of endless prism-like pieces of crystal. It’s six bedrooms and six bathrooms for crying out loud. Even wearing the most expensive dress in my closet—a respectable Calvin Klein number—I feel one hundred percent like an outsider.
Everyone is decked out in cocktail wear, dining on the hors d’oeuvres carried by tux-clad servers.
I swipe a flute of Champagne, hand it Rob, then grab another. I gulp while he stares at me, amusement visible in his half-smile and raised eyebrow.
“Down that,” I say through the burn of bubbles in my nose. “You’ll need it.”
He lets out a soft chuckle before doing exactly what I recommend. If he’s nervous, he’s not showing it. He’s the picture of ease and confidence, like always. Clad in a navy blue suit, crisp white shirt, and silver tie, he stands tall with an easy, lips-only smile on his face. I spot a group of my aunties whispering and pointing at him. A few of my cousins wave. He simply smiles back, as if he’s used to being looked at like a porterhouse steak. Maybe because he is—that’s how I look at him most days.
I clutch his arm. “Sorry. My family gets super gossip-y around fresh meat.”
He leans down, pressing a soft kiss to my lips. Instantly my knees are jelly. I’m always putty whenever Rob’s mouth is on me.
He grins at me. “Now they have something to talk about.”
That kiss and that smile are just what I need to ease the nerves firing through me like cannons. My mom is somewhere in this packed room and will probably put Rob through the ringer with questions about his job, his family, and when exactly he plans to marry me and impregnate me with a million babies. My chest tightens at the thought. Slowly, I exhale, counting the seconds. It’s just one night. A couple hours of polite conversation, and then we can head back home.
Another burst of warmth courses through me, calming me. We’re officially “we” now. Us. Rob and me. I haven’t used the word “we” in ages, and I’m in an unfamiliar giddy, smitten state as a result. I breathe to calm the swarm of butterflies in my stomach.
From across the while marble foyer, my mom waves her tiny tan hand at us. She’s clad in a silky silver robe dress and is smiling so wide, I wonder if she’s plugged into a nearby outlet. I can’t remember the last time she beamed like this. I bite down so hard, my jaw pops. I bet she can’t wait to dig her claws into Rob.
I lead him over to where she’s sitting. She’s tucked in a nearby sitting area with a gaggle of my aunties. They gaze up at him with stars in their eyes and Cheshire cat smiles—all seven of them. It’s as if they’ve never laid eyes on a handsome Irish guy before.
“Mom, this is Rob. My boyfriend,” I add at the end. I pinch the inside of my wrist. It’s still a shock to think that after our crazy meeting in Taipei and our chance run-in in San Francisco, Rob is my boyfriend.
He leans down to her. “Mrs. Soberano, it’s a delight to meet you.”
Instead of taking Rob’s outstretched hand, she stands and pulls him into a hug. “Oh please, call me Brynne.”
Hunched over, he pivots his stunned expression to me. I’m as surprised as he is. She’s never hugged any of the guys I’ve brought home before.
Seconds after the shock hits, I fight the urge to laugh. It’s downright hilarious just how much Rob’s six-foot-plus frame dwarfs her. Even when he’s bent in half, she barely hits his shoulder.
All seven of my aunties line up for hugs, too. When they get their fill of him, my mom reaches up to pat the side of his face. Red overtakes his pale complexion, but then he recovers with a smile.
“So handsome.” My mom practically sings the words. “It’s so nice to finally meet you.”
And me? I’m gawking at my mom like she’s a three-headed alien. Never once has she been this affectionate or pleasant in any previous “meet the parents” scenario.
Soon pleasantries switch to friendly chatter. My mom asks all the questions I thought she would, but her tone isn’t impatient or brusque. She doesn’t badger him about marriage or babies, and she doesn’t interrogate him like he’s a suspected criminal. The gentle cadence of her voice, the perma-smile on her face, it’s like she truly wants to get to know him. As a person. As my boyfriend.
Something inside of me flutters. It’s happiness mixed with nerves. Who in the world is this woman?
My aunties join the conversation, then a couple of my uncles and a handful of cousins. Rob handles it all with a smile on his face. Every time I tap his arm to check on him, to make sure he’s not overwhelmed, he nods that he’s okay. As it turns out, the Soberano clan is an easier bunch to handle now than they have been in the past. Usually it’s pleasantries and quick hugs from the female family members before they beeline for quiet corner to gossip. An intense grilling session from the male members follows. I usually have to yank the poor guy away and make for an early exit.
But Rob is a different story. My aunties and cousins shower him in cheek kisses and bear hugs lasting at least five seconds while fawning over his accent.
My mom tugs at the hem of my dress, and I crouch down to sit with her on a nearby suede armchair.
“I like him, anak. Very polite. And handsome.” Gazing up at him, she pats my leg before turning to me. “You can tell he’s a good man.”
I roll my eyes and laugh. “You can?”
She nods. “Absolutely. It’s all about feeling. And I have a good feeling about him.”
When she squeezes my hand, it’s a whole new brand of shock. That level of affection—this entire moment of ease and happiness between us—is something I haven’t felt with her in since I was a kid.
“I have to say mom, I’m blown away. I thought you’d dive right into interrogating him about marriage and babies.”
She waves her hand, a wistful look on her face. “I won’t lie, Layla. I want those things for you. But I want you to be happy above all else.”
I almost choke on my next sip. Hearing those words is an electric jolt of fresh air.
“Um, what?” I stutter.
Closing her eyes, she shakes her head. “I know I come down hard on you, anak. But ever since I moved back to the States, I realized how wrong I was to lecture you all the time. It’s hard. As a mom, you think you know what’s best for your child. But you’re an independent adult now. I see how dedicated you are to your work. You don’t need me to tell you how to live your life anymore. Especially when you’ve got someone like that by your side.”
She dips her head toward Rob, who’s making faces at my cousin’s baby daughter.
I can barely swallow. After years of arguments, hurt feelings, and disagreements over what’s best for me, she finally understands me as a person, not just as her daughter.
She turns back to me. “Besides. I see the way you look at each other. You’re so in love, anak. You never looked at any of your other boyfriends like that.” She gives my shoulder a gentle squeeze. “When your daughter is that in love with someone, that’s all it takes to make a mother happy.”
I can’t do anything other than stare at her, my mouth open. Not only have she and I hit a major milestone in our relationship, but her epiphany helped me see things more clearly, too.
I’m in love with Rob. That instant comfort I feel around him, our connection that runs deeper than anything I’ve felt before. Even the lust between us, it’s all proof. And it’s so obvious, even my mom sees it.
Blinking back tears, I lean over to hug my mom. She squeezes me back. It’s the kind of cuddly embrace we haven’t had in ages.
She whispers in my ear. “Now go over there and take him away before your cousin Helen asks him to change her baby’s diaper.”
I chuckle and pull Rob away from the crowd of relatives. We walk to the other end of the living room where Naomi’s friends and coworkers are gathered, and find a quiet spot in the corner.
“You’ve got a great family,” Rob says.
“They’re not usually that affectionate. They must really like you.”
I wink at him, but before he can reply, Naomi struts over to us with a smile so tight, it looks like it hurts.
“Layla. Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
I bite back a groan. The happiness from that moment with my mom slides away.
“Naomi, this is Rob.”
He slides his hand in my sister’s outstretched grip. “Pleasure.”
Rob’s relaxed smile goes tight. I’ve briefed him on my strained relationship with Naomi, her cutthroat personality, and how her polite façade is a thin veil for the shark lying underneath. But it’s still an abrupt transition from the pleasant interaction he had with my mom and extended family just moments ago.
She’s the first to release the grip. Even in her silver cocktail dress and delicate diamond studs, she emanates a standoffish chill. “And what is it that you do, Rob?”
I roll my eyes and snatch a glass of Champagne from the tray of the nearest server walking by. I wag the rim of my glass at her. Not to toast; to scold. “Naomi, the polite response is ‘nice to meet you.’ Not to dive into an interrogation.”
She frowns at my tone. “You’ll have to excuse my manners, Rob. My little sister is terrible about bringing whomever she’s dating around the family. I’m just incredibly excited to see you in the flesh and want to learn as much as I can about you before she gets annoyed with me and snatches you away.”
The death glare I direct at her has little effect. Her words and tone are cheery, but the message is far from it. Using the rift in our relationship as ammunition to insult me. Classy.
The charmed half-smile Rob gives shows he’s not the least bit fazed. “Layla’s a private, independent person. It’s one of the things I love about her.”
The word love lingers like smoke in the air. Love. Rob loves something about me. The imaginary smoke turns to heat. I feel it over every inch of exposed skin on my body.
I shove the thought into some random recess of my brain. I don’t have the energy to worry about feelings—serious feelings, like love—when I’ve got to protect Rob from the barracuda masquerading as my older sister.
I force myself to focus on the cordial yet sterile conversation between the two of them. Armed with a professional smile, Rob answers every single one of her questions about his work without missing a beat.
“But I mean, publishing is such a volatile industry, don’t you think?” Naomi narrows her brown eyes at him, like a tigress eyeing an injured baby wildebeest. “Don’t you worry that the advent of self publishing will hurt you in the long run?”
Rob’s shakes his head. “Not at all. My business partner and I did extensive research before we started this company, and we’re prepared for any scenario. Combining traditional and self-publishing markets is actually a long-term goal of ours.”
He dives into a detailed explanation of Offshoot’s business model. Naomi looks mildly impressed.
“It’s mostly about staying flexible and being willing to change, which is the crux of our business,” Rob says.
I hand him a fresh glass of champagne. He sips, unbothered by my sister’s mission to trip him up.
She sighs, her chest heaving once. When I focus on her, something foreign rests behind her stare. It’s almost soft.
“Are we done with the Spanish Inquisition, Naomi?” I say.
I snatch another flute of champagne from a passing tray. When I hand it to her, I catch the beginning of an eye roll, but she stops herself. “You’ll have to forgive me, Rob. I’m a lawyer. I ask a lot of questions.”
“It’s all right. Seems to be a common trait of every lawyer I’ve encountered.”
Naomi takes a long sip just as her husband Darren saunters up next to her, straightening his jacket. He cuts an ultra slim figure in his power suit. All that marathon training he’s been doing seems to have shed what little fat he had on his body to begin with.
He frowns before adjusting his glasses and running a hand through his short dark brown hair. “Layla. Long time, no see.”
Naomi nudges him, and he grabs the flute from her hands before she walks away to micromanage a nearby server on how to properly distribute prawn canapes.
“I hear you work in publishing now,” Darren says, his eyes on the glass of champagne, not me. “That’s great. Kind of a step up from those album covers you were designing, right?”
Typical Darren. Naomi always says he’s harmless, but his barbs cut deep regardless. He always offers a polite greeting, then dives head-first into an insulting comment. If I call him on it, he slips immediately into flustered mode, saying that he didn’t mean it. Then he follows up with another mildly insulting comment or question. That’s when I usually leave.
“Excuse me?” Rob’s voice causes Darren’s brow to shoot halfway up his forehead. “Did you just insult my girlfriend’s profession?”
Darren’s nose crinkles in confusion and his cheeks begin to flush. He seems to just now realize that the man speaking to him is five inches taller, muscled to hell, and doesn’t take kindly to thinly veiled insults.
“Oh uh, sorry, man.” Darren offers a flustered head shake. “Are you two together?”
Rob narrows his gaze. Instantly I’m reminded of that lethal frown he gifted my harasser at the hotel bar in Taipei. “It shouldn’t matter if we’re together or not, man.”
Spoken in Rob’s curt Irish accent, “man” takes on a whole new meaning. It’s a warning, a bright yellow caution sign that Darren better watch what he says to me.
I clutch Rob’s hand in mine. The sudden touch seems to pull him a few paces back from protective attack dog mode.
Glancing at the marble floor beneath my heels, I smile to myself. My heart swells, then eases. I have no idea if Rob loves me, but just by the protective look on his face and the way he jumped all over Darren the moment he tried to undermine me, it shows that he sure as hell cares about me. And if that’s all I get tonight, I’m happy.
Darren clears his throat. “Right. Um, sorry about that, Layla. Publishing. Books, right? Pretty neat.”
I beam. “Thanks.” I twist my head to face Rob. “Darren’s a corporate lawyer, too.”
Rob squints. “Why am I not surprised?”
Naomi twirls to us after chatting to a nearby group of people. A familiar looking blond man around Rob’s height saunters up to Darren, patting him on the back. Relief washes over Darren’s face as they shake hands. Naomi turns to the man and practically squeals before hugging him.
“Brooker! So glad you could make it! It’s been months!”
At the sound of his name, a lightbulb goes off in my head. Brooker is the hedge fund manager my sister set me up with on a blind date two years ago. I dry swallow the grimace I’m aching to let loose. That was the worst date I’ve ever been on in my life. Not only did Brooker spend the evening talking about himself in pure out-of-touch yuppie fashion, but when he finally asked about me and what I did, it was a shitshow. He scoffed when I said I dropped out of college. And when he laughed at my work as a freelance artist and designer, I threw my drink in his face. Then I walked out of the restaurant. I haven’t seen him since, until tonight.
“Brooker, this is Rob. He’s with my sister…” Naomi gasps, her mouth a perfect “o” shape. Her eyes dart between Brooker and me. It’s like her head is a ping pong ball being volleyed back and forth. “Oh my goodness, I forgot. You two already know each other.”
I raise an eyebrow at Brooker, then tip my full glass to him. “How could I forget?”
His blue eyes widen when he finally registers it’s me, the blind date from hell who doused him in top-shelf whiskey. He clears his throat. “Refresh my memory.”
The recognition in his eyes betrays his words. The arrogance of this guy.
I glare. “A little whiskey would jog your memory, don’t you think?”
Now it’s Rob whose gaze is darting back and forth between me and Brooker.
“We went on a blind date years ago. He made fun of what I did for a living, then insulted me for making a peon’s salary.” I pivot to Brooker. “How did you phrase it? Something like, ‘We hedge fund folks would faint at less than six figures. How do the rest of you live?’” I turn back to Rob. “I threw my drink in his face and left.”
I rest my glass on the tray of a passing server, then resume eye contact with Brooker. “That’s pretty much the gist of it, right?”
Brooker lets out a taunting laugh. His blue eyes are icy, cold. “You’re a real piece of work, you know that, Layla?”
Naomi’s mouth has slipped into a tight purse. “Layla. You didn’t.”
I cross my arms as heat crawls up my chest to my cheeks. The restrained, scolding way she speaks makes me want to scream. Her husband’s friend insulted me, yet she’s disappointed in me. Typical.
A deep throat clear pulls me out of my silent rage session. Rob’s glower is now aimed at Brooker. “Did you really say that to her?”
Brooker pivots to the left, and his smug expression drops, leaving something unsure behind. “Is that a British accent I detect?”
Rob says nothing. He simply glowers, his brow crinkled to hell, his mouth a straight line of anger. Then he laughs. It’s not a happy sound though. More like disbelief and mocking mixed in one.
His green eyes fix on Brooker. “Lad, I think you’ve had a few too many if you can’t tell the difference between a British and Irish accent.”
Brooker shrugs. “They’re pretty much the same though, right?”
Rob takes a step forward, and Brooker freezes in place. His suddenly wide eyes remind me of a surprised lemur. Rob’s rugby-tuned physique and the death glare are a lethal combination, it seems.
“Is there something wrong with you, Brooker? I’m as Irish as that Guinness you’re nursing.” His lethal frown is back, along with that hard tone. “And given your state of intelligence, it doesn’t surprise me at all that you wouldn’t recognize what a gem Layla is straight away. She’s the single most talented artist I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. My publishing company would be in a sorry state without her.”
Fire sweeps up my cheeks at how open Rob is in his praise for me. I’m not used to talking about my professional accomplishments in front of my sister and her rich prick friends.
Rob steps back, kisses my cheek, then leans to my ear. “Where’s the restroom?”
I direct him down the hall.
With Rob gone, Brooker fixes his annoyed stare at me. “So you slept your way to the top then?”
“Excuse me?” The shrill volume of my voice causes a handful of people to jerk their heads in my direction. I can’t help it though. Where the hell does he get off accusing me of such a thing?
Naomi’s jaw falls to the floor, but Brooker continues. “What I said got to you, didn’t it? Being a starving artist and working with other starving artists finally took its toll.”
Fire burns all the way from my face to my legs and arms, to the tips of my fingers.
He chuckles through a smirk. The image is pure condescension. “Gotta say, Layla. You’re smarter than you look. You bagged a publisher boyfriend who can advance your career. Pretty brilliant, actually. Where’d you find him? Tinder?”
The anger coursing through me makes it hard to breathe let alone talk. It’s just a handful of seconds that I’m standing there silent, but it’s enough time for Brooker to set down his empty glass and grab a flute of Champagne.
Another second passes and I breathe. Only the chatter of nearby conversations and the mood music fill the space between us. Still nothing from Naomi, nothing to say to defend her little sister from her husband’s dirtbag friend.
But then something inside me flips. The rage settles, then surges forward. Icy replaces the heat, and I’m nothing but stone cold confidence. It’s in the way I stand tall, the way I walk right up to Brooker and toss the Champagne in his face.
I don’t give a flying fuck if Brooker thinks I’m some unworthy peon. His opinion means less than nothing to me. But I will not allow him to speak to me in such a degrading way.
“Actually Brooker, Rob found me. Some creepy asshole who looked just like you wouldn’t leave me alone. He got rid of him for me, and later that night I thanked him with a private show in front of his hotel window.”
The sharp gasp to my right tells me my sister heard me loud and clear. Darren did too, probably. And so did anyone standing close enough to hear my voice. I don’t care, though. All I care is that Brooker, who’s busy coughing and rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands, hears what the hell I have to say.
I drain the remainder of my glass and point it at his face. “I don’t need to sleep my way to any job. I got here because I’m smart, I’m talented, and I’m just that good. So you can go fuck yourself, Brooker.”
I turn to Naomi and Darren, who are both red as tomatoes and sport matching dropped jaws. “And fuck you guys for just standing there while this dipshit insulted my integrity.”
Naomi stutters through her shock, but I don’t pay attention. Because at that moment, all I see is Rob standing a handful of feet away from me, a look of utter shock and disgust plastered on his face.
Rob turns for the front door. I follow him as quickly as I can, but in these heels, it’s a lost cause. He’s halfway through the lawn by the time I make it down the stairs.
My heel catches an uneven brick in the driveway, and I fall to the ground. “Rob, stop!”
He jogs over to me and pulls me up, bracing me with his hands on my forearms. We stand and say nothing, the silence between us weighing like a lead blanket. A teenage server on his smoke break a few feet away starts to ask if we’re okay, but we both bark “we’re fine” at the same time. He scurries back up the half-mile long driveway up to the house.
The longer I stare at Rob’s twisted face, the more anxious I become. He’s angry. I know he’s angry. I just don’t know why.
“Why did you storm out?” I ask.
He clenches his jaw, and my chest tightens. I’ve never, ever been on the receiving end of his glare, and it kills.
He steps back to let me go. With one hand, he loosens his tie and throws up his other in the air. “Why in fucking hell did you tell your sister, your brother-in-law, and pretty much everyone within hearing distance about how we met?”
I heave a breath and square my shoulders. “When you left to go to the bathroom, Brooker accused me of sleeping with you to get my job. I was pissed. Yeah, I might have overshared a bit, but I wanted to set him straight. I would never do such a thing. I don’t want him or anyone else thinking that about me.”
“That little sack of…” The rest of Rob’s insult is swallowed by the engine of a car revving along the driveway. He grips his hair in a tight fist, then lets go. When he releases, it’s a scruffy mess. “Layla, who cares what that worthless shit thinks? I don’t want him knowing about how we started up. It’s private.” His voice is hard, like stone. “What we did that night, I don’t want that out in the open. I don’t want anyone to know.”
In the seconds of silence that follow, his message soaks in. He’s embarrassed of how we met. It’s understandable of course. I was raised in a conservative household where my parents constantly lectured me about dressing appropriately and not giving boys the wrong message when I was old enough to date. I was certainly never planning to tell anyone about the night that Rob and I indulged in voyeuristic playtime as total strangers. But I’m not ashamed of it. Not even close.
Yet given his reaction, the way he’s lashed out at me, he’s ashamed. And because of how I so easily offered up that piece of our history, he’s ashamed of me too. The man I love is embarrassed of me and would rather run away than hash things out.
My throat tightens and my eyes burn with the tears I’m struggling to blink back. The cough I let out sounds scarily close to a sob, but I hold back. “I’m not ashamed of how we met, and I’m not ashamed of you. Yeah, it might be weird to some people, but I don’t care. Because it brought me you.”
When I tire of blinking, the tears finally fall. I wipe my cheeks and nose on my bare arm before meeting his gaze once more. His face twists, as if he’s in pain.
“But you obviously don’t feel the same way.” I sniffle, then continue down the driveway. We drove Rob’s car tonight, but there’s no way I’m riding back with him.
Behind me he calls. “Layla, please just—”
“Leave me alone.”
I dig my phone from my purse while jogging to the end of the driveway. When I make it to the street, I pull up the rideshare app on my phone. A minute later, a silver Audi pulls up and I climb in.
The middle-aged woman in the driver’s seat glances at me with worried eyes. “Everything okay, hun?”
I nod, despite the tears, despite my swollen eyes, despite the way my voice breaks when I try and fail to speak. Somehow I squeak out my address, and stare out the window at darkness around me.