It was painful, how effortlessly beautiful he was. The warm grin he tossed toward the hostess. The casual way he hooked his sunglasses into the neck of his T-shirt. The move of his muscular torso as he glanced around the restaurant. Every female in the restaurant noticed, and there was a subtle shift of the air in his direction. Voices hushed. Conversations stalled.
If he noticed, you couldn’t tell. His gaze found me, and he paused, then smiled.
It wasn’t the same smile as he’d given at the party. Maybe the last five years had changed him, or maybe it was because I was different now. Hot, according to Vidal. Even Bojan said I qualified. And I was blonde instead of brunette, with perfect white teeth instead of the traffic jam of before. I was wearing makeup and a tight minidress that was ten steps up from the t-shirt and jeans I’d worn at the party. Maybe the original smile was his pitying one, and this was the real one.
If so, I almost wanted the pity. This felt… I shifted in the seat as he approached. Odd. More so than the other handful of dates I’d gone on since my makeover.
Cash settled into the opposite seat without a greeting, then inched it forward until he was close to the table. “Hey.”
“Hey. I’m Emma Blanton.” The new last name still felt awkward and fake on my lips, but we’d agreed that Ripplestine was part of my past I needed to shed for something lighter and cooler. I held out my hand and he paused then shook it. The action knocked over the sugar packets, and I let go of his hand and quickly tidied them back into place.
“You from Los Angeles, Emma?” He settled back in his seat and glanced toward the waitress.
“Yeah. Hyde Park.” I pulled at the hem of my skirt, smoothing it down along my thighs.
“And you’re not sick of this town yet?” His gaze came back to me, and they were the same dark blue from the party. His team—he had a team—had agreed on this date with the stipulation that we donate eight thousand dollars to an autism camp in the valley, so he couldn’t be that different. Still, I couldn’t match him with the party. These jaded eyes with the kind ones. His almost accusatory tone with the gentle one.
I forced a smile. “I like it here.” What would a naturally beautiful California girl say? One from his world? “Everyone is so nice.”
He chuckled, and I hoped the photographer caught the sexy gesture. “Everyone is so nice,” he repeated. “Okay.”
I pushed the tip of my tongue up against the sharp edge of my front teeth and swallowed the urge to snap at his condescending tone. He thought he knew what the real world was like? People had been nice to him since the day he was born.
“So,” I managed, my breezy tone intact. “What was it like, having Jocelyn Mitchell as a mom?”
That bored him. He sighed and rested his elbows on the table, cupping one hand over the other. “It was great. She’s great. You’ve seen the show, I’m sure. You know.” He lifted his hand, catching the attention of our waitress and any thoughts of us reigniting our non-existent spark dissolved.
A blue-haired girl with the Frenchy’s pinstriped top stopped beside us, her smile big. “Hey.”
“Hey. Can I get the grilled cheese? And a Heineken.”
“Absolutely!” She glanced at me.
“The chicken Ceaser wrap and a Diet Pepsi.”
She scribbled the items on a pad and bounced off. And right then, the lunch fell apart.
“I was at the table right behind them, and I was trying to get a picture of him without him seeing me. But the point is, I was close. Close enough to hear her ask him about the Ranch. And Cash asked if they could talk about something else. And she said that he pretended like his brother didn’t exist. Like… Emma just said that. Straight out. I mean, we’ve all thought it, but you don’t just call someone out like that. And Cash totally clammed up at that point. I stopped breathing, waiting to hear what he would say. But he didn’t say anything. He just sat there for a few minutes while she kept pushing and pushing and going on and on about Wesley—and then he stood up and walked out. He left before his food even came.”
Marjorie Adams, UCLA student
“He didn’t just walk out. He leaned over and said something to her, right before he did. I don’t know what it was, but Emma didn’t like it. And he left before she could say anything back. But the funniest thing was, she stayed right there. Best seat in the restaurant and she sucked it up for another thirty minutes. The waitress brought their food, and she ate both of them. His beer. His grilled cheese. Her wrap. I offered to clear it, but she glared at me like she was going to stab me with her fork. It was like she hadn’t eaten in a week.”