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A Taste for Love: Chapter 18

“It’s a really nice night.”

Ben glances up at the sky as he says so. I pause and take it all in. Houston was hit with a thunderstorm two days ago, and it washed away some of the sweltering June heat. Not that any of this helps with our current state. We’ve just filled our stomachs with bowls of piping hot noodles at Kingu Ramen, and we all stepped out onto the sidewalk with sweat beading across our foreheads.

“We should go for a walk around Hermann Park,” Grace suggests.

Ben beams. “Oh, let’s do it! I haven’t been there yet.”

Imagining the mosquitoes likely out in force, I prepare to back out.

“Will you come?”

The question comes from the last person I expect, and the answer just slips out.

“Sure,” I hear myself say.

James smiles. I catch sight of his dimple, and I forget to breathe. Grace smirks devilishly, but I ignore her.

“Maybe we should take one car,” she suggests, pointing in the direction of her tiny sedan.

“I can drive,” Ben immediately volunteers. “I’ve got plenty of room in the car.”

James, for once, doesn’t object. The four of us follow the row of cars parked in front of the storefronts until we reach a black Mercedes SUV. Ben unlocks the car and helps Grace into the front passenger seat. That leaves me with James in the back.

I jump as he comes around and grabs the handle.

“Oh, I didn’t mean—”

Too late. James already has the door open. I offer a sheepish smile and climb inside. Ben starts the engine and glances at us through the rearview.

“Seat belts, please.”

I reach over my right shoulder, but when I tug the belt over my torso, it hitches halfway over. I let it retract and pull again, then again, but can’t loosen it far enough to reach.

“May I?”

I press my back against the cushion as James stretches an arm across to grab hold of the belt. With one smooth motion, he secures it into the clasp at my hip. The movement brings his face so close I can make out the black outer rim of his eyes and smell the clean scent of him. It reminds me of warm laundry, mixed with fresh air. Not the overpowering body spray I’m used to with guys I’ve dated.

“Is that okay?”

Oh yeah. More than okay.

I swallow hard. “Uh-huh.”

His gaze trails down to pause on my lips. My mouth is dryer than a bag of Saltines.

Ben clears his throat. “Ready back there?”

In a flash, James is back on his side like nothing happened.

“Uh, yeah, we’re ready when you are,” he says.

I turn to stare out the window as Ben backs out, my trembling hands clasped in my lap. He and Grace carry on a steady conversation on the way to the park, but it isn’t enough to drown out the silence in the back. The air is stifling, and when we finally arrive, I can’t get out fast enough. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten I’m restrained, and I’m jerked back by the seat belt. My face burning with the heat of a thousand suns, I quickly release myself and stumble out into the night.

We make our way past the zoo and onto the path that encircles the man-made pond in the center. The moon is high and bright, and stars dot the usually hazy sky. Ben loops an arm over Grace’s shoulder and pulls her against him. They walk ahead of us, talking with low voices as we stroll along the partially tree-lined path. At first, there’s enough distance between James and me to drive a car through. As the minutes pass, he gradually closes the gap.

When we come around the first curve, my voice slices through the silence.

“So, where did you learn to bake like that?”

James turns to me, and a tender smile blossoms onto his face.

“My mom. She loves to bake,” he explains. “It was one of the things my sister and I always did with her.”

“I didn’t know you have a sister,” I reply as I match my steps to his. “What’s her name?”

“Gigi. She’s eighteen months younger than me.”

“Is she here too?”

He shakes his head. “She’s on a trip with her school abroad in Italy. She’ll be back in a couple of weeks.”

“I have an older sister. Her name is Jeannie.”

“Yes, I know,” he says, eyes twinkling. “We ran across each other when you were visiting.”

“Ah, right. I . . . knew that.”

My, that lake looks awfully refreshing. Maybe I should swan dive into it.

“So, how long have you been baking, Liza?”

I pull my eyes back to the path. “For as long as I can remember. Mom’s always complaining I spent more time folding dumplings than laundry.”

He laughs, a throaty sound that invites me to step closer.

I peer up at him. “Is your mom a professional baker too?”

He half shrugs. “She was, but my aunt—Ben’s mom—needed help managing her commercial properties. That’s actually why we’re here. Mom and Aunt May are watching over a major renovation of one of her apartment complexes.”

“Is that how you guys know Mrs. Lee? Through your mom?”

James hesitates. When he does speak, his voice is drawn tight like a bowstring.

“Not exactly. Our families ran in the same circles.”

“Oh, does that mean you know her son? She mentioned—”

He cuts me off. “We should catch up to the others.”

James strides forward, and I force myself to fall in line with him. As we continue along the path, my eyes keep straying over to him. Part of me wishes I hadn’t mentioned Mrs. Lee. James was relaxing up until then. In fact, he was actually quite . . .


I trip on a crack in the path. Thankfully, I catch myself before James notices. My heart has just slowed to a normal rhythm when he suddenly turns to me.

“You and Grace seem really close.”

I nod, the memories flooding back immediately. “We’ve known each other for years. I knew the day I met her that we were going to be best friends.”

“Really? How?”

“Well, we met at the pool the summer before sixth grade. She was on one of the swim teams and was practicing in the deep end. I didn’t actually know how to swim, so I was taking lessons,” I reply softly as I glance at the water. “Some of the other kids were pointing and laughing because I was the oldest one there. Not only did Grace stand up for me, she offered to teach me herself.”

“That was really nice of her.”

“It was more than nice. I’m really lucky to have a friend like her.”

James pauses for a brief moment under an oak tree. I come to a stop beside him.

“That’s how I feel about Ben. Sometimes I forget we’re only cousins. I always wanted a brother, but my parents weren’t able to have another kid after Gigi.”

“I hope you won’t take this the wrong way,” I say after a beat, “but it’s funny when I see you guys together.”

He leans against the trunk and eyes me curiously. “Why?”

“I guess it’s because you’re so different. Ben is so cheerful and friendly, and you’re . . .”

I search for the right words. The ones I choose now don’t match the ones I would have used just days ago.

“You’re quiet, more reserved.”

James smirks. “You know, I could say the same about you and Grace.”

I open my mouth to deny it, but nothing comes out. He’s right. Grace and I are pretty different. He smiles and pushes himself off the tree, and we start walking again.

“Ben complains I’m too serious,” he admits. “But I can’t help it. I feel responsible for him, even though we’re only a few months apart. Ben tends to jump into things without thinking, and it’s gotten him in trouble before.”

Something clicks in my brain. “Is that why he moved down here?”

He says nothing for a long time. I’m beginning to think I overstepped when I hear his voice.

“Ben trusted someone he shouldn’t have, and he got hurt.”

That’s something I know firsthand. Hell, James was there to witness it.

I cock my head. “And you? Why did you come?”

His attention shifts to Ben and Grace just a few paces in front of us. “I’m here to watch over him.”

Their laughter floats through the air. Even from where I’m standing, I know Grace is happier than I’ve seen her in a long time.

I smile. “You don’t need to worry about Grace. She’d never do anything to hurt him intentionally.”

“Broken hearts are unavoidable,” he says quietly. “Even when you do everything possible to protect yourself.”

There’s a melancholy to his voice I’ve never heard before.

My heart clenches. “Are you speaking from personal experience?”

“Actually, I’ve never really been in a relationship,” he admits, rubbing the back of his neck.

I nearly trip on my own feet. “Why not?”

James shrugs. “I’ve been too busy. You already know that Ben wants to be a doctor. Believe it or not, he actually chose to do that. His parents didn’t force him. My dad, on the other hand, wants me to follow in his footsteps.” He stops, turning to me in the dark. “He’s been after me to work on my résumé, which is why I’ve been working at the satellite site here. I think he’s hoping I’ll take it over one day.”

I feel the answer in my bones, but I still ask. “Is that what you want?”

His head drops. “I’m not sure what I want just yet. Ben says I should go into medicine too, but—as you might have noticed—I’m not very good at talking to people.”

I press my lips together to keep from smiling but give up when he flashes a disarming grin. I glance back at the lake with a shrug.

“I know how it feels. I really love baking, but my parents expect me to do something more practical.”

“What would you do if you could?”

I’ve been asking myself that same question for weeks. What do I want to do? What if Mom and Dad never change their minds about culinary school? Worse yet, what if they’re right and I end up working at Yin and Yang for the rest of my life? I swallow hard.

“I’ve always imagined going to culinary school and becoming a pastry chef. But now . . . I don’t know. My parents are right about one thing, though. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life working at some small local bakery.” I sigh. “I think sometimes it’s better to chase new dreams.”

“Do you have one? A new dream?”

I don’t know why I tell him. Perhaps it’s the magic of the moon, or the boldness lent to me by the inky night.

“Something to call my own. Maybe a book. Not like a novel or anything. Like a baking book, with my own original recipes.”

A long silence follows my admission. I start to regret saying anything. Then I hear James’s soft voice just over my shoulder.

“There is one other reason why I haven’t dated anyone.”

As if compelled by our newfound connection, I turn to face him. With the moon at his back, I can’t make out his expression, but I nonetheless feel the intensity of his gaze.

“I haven’t met anyone worth risking my heart for.”

The last word hangs heavy in the air, the sentence feeling oddly incomplete. James takes a step toward me, his face finally coming into view with the dip of his head. I lick my lips nervously, and his eyes trail down like a caress to settle on my mouth. Maybe he leans in, or maybe it’s just my imagination, but slowly, the distance between us evaporates.

“Hey, you two! Keep up!”

I jerk back at the sound of Grace’s voice. My cheeks burn hotter than Dad’s Szechuan chicken as I spot her and Ben waving at us from the next bend. I muster a half-hearted smile and point in their direction.

“We’d better catch up.”

We continue on to where Grace and Ben are waiting. We then walk, two by two, through the wooded area, with the scattered moonlight between branches our only source of light. It’s about as peaceful as it can get, but I’m more on edge than ever before.

Slowly, Ben and Grace pull ahead again, but I barely notice. My mind plays my words to James over and over. At some point, the path takes a sharp turn, and in my distraction, I keep going straight.

“Liza, wait!”

James grabs me by the hand and pulls me back before my foot sinks into a large area of mud. I blush, grateful for the darkness.

“Oh, jeez. Thanks. I totally missed that.”

He laughs. “Come on. It’s this way.”

He doesn’t let go of my hand when we’re back on the trail, but his grip is loose enough I could pull out of it. My grip tightens. I’m definitely better off sticking with him.

“Guys! Come look at this!”

We quicken our pace until the tree line opens to reveal a bridge spanning the stream that feeds into the pond. The moon glistens on the water’s surface, waves rippling from the gentle breeze. The landscape looks totally different at night, the murky water turning into an indigo mirror. Grace is the first to notice our joined hands, and she pokes Ben in the ribs. His eyes go wide, and he stares at his cousin. I start to pull away, but James threads his fingers through mine and locks me in place.

“Are we going to keep admiring the view, or finish our walk?”

Ben laughs. “You don’t have to tell me twice.”

We resume our stroll around the rest of the pond, ending up back in the parking lot. I let go of James to get in the car. Before I can mourn the loss, he settles in and immediately wraps his fingers back around mine. I don’t dare look at him, but there’s no denying the tension between us. The air feels charged somehow, like some invisible force is pulling us together.

Ben has just parked beside Grace’s car in the shopping plaza when something buzzes beside me. It’s my phone. I accidentally left it in the car. Reluctantly, I slip my hand away to take a look. It’s a text from Jeannie.

Where are you? Mom is threatening to call the police!

I check the time. Oh my god. It’s almost midnight.

“Grace, I need to get home right now or my mom’s going to kill me.”

I tumble out of Ben’s car in a panic. James hops out after me.

“Liza . . .”

Impulsively, I reach up on my tiptoes to hug him. His arms come around my back, and I catch a whiff of butter and cherry blossoms. Rather than bury my nose into his shirt—so, so tempting—I pull away with a strained smile.

“Good night, James.”

Grace kisses Ben on the cheek. “I’ll text you later.”

She and I hop into her car and drive off into the night. The last thing I see is James waving goodbye.

I’m ambushed the minute I step through the front door. Mom unloads a night’s worth of anxiety and stress by shouting at me for a solid half hour. If it wasn’t my fault for worrying her, I’d walk away and lock myself in my room. Instead, I bear it without so much as a single flinch.

“Go to your room,” she eventually demands with a choked voice. “Go!”

I startle awake with bleary eyes some six hours later and shuffle into the bathroom for a shower. As the water pours over me, I think back to the walk in the park. My hands still tingle from the memory of James’s fingers in mine. It’s so odd to think that just weeks ago, I would have slapped him for trying the same move.

Once I start to prune, I turn off the faucet and dry myself off. I wrap my hair in a towel and prop myself on my bed with my back against the wall. My phone, which has been on the charger, suddenly buzzes. It’s a message. Then another. Then two more back-to-back. I tap to open a group chat with Grace and two unknown numbers.

Is Liza up yet? the first number asks.

No, she’s not a morning person, Grace replies. Maybe give her another hour or so.

I hope we didn’t get her into too much trouble last night, the other number texts.

I’m not gonna lie . . . her mom is super strict. But this is the first time she’s broken curfew, so maybe it’ll be okay.

It doesn’t take much to infer Ben and James are the other two in the chat. There’s a lull in the conversation, so I decide to jump in.

Me: Hey, guys. It’s Liza.

Grace: Liza! You’re up early!

Me: Couldn’t sleep. Mom was super upset last night.

UN1: I’m sorry we kept you out so late.

UN1: This is Ben, BTW.

That makes the other number James. I quickly add them to my contacts.

Me: It’s okay. My mom’s stressed about the contest, so it didn’t help me any.

James: Are you okay?

Just seeing his words appear on my screen makes me smile.

Me: Yeah, I’ll be okay. Just waiting to see what kind of punishment I get.

Grace: I’m guessing you’re gonna get grounded.

Me: That’s a fact. LOL

Grace: Any idea for how long?

Me: Pretty sure she thinks the end of time is too short rn.

Grace replies with a groaning gif. James sends a sad face emoji, while Ben chooses three sobbing ones. I chuckle. That’s them to a T. My ears catch the sound of my parents stirring next door. It’s time to face my fate. I leave one last text in the chat.

Gotta go. Mom’s up. Will keep you updated.

I toss the phone onto the bed and head back into the bathroom. Once my hair is dry, I run a brush through it and tie it into a ponytail. I throw on my customary T-shirt, but pair it with some old jean shorts I only wear at home. Always an early riser, Jeannie is already at the table. She squeezes my hand as I sit down, and I smile gratefully. Mom’s at the stove, preparing breakfast, and doesn’t acknowledge either of us.

“Morning,” Dad says after sitting down. “You’re up early. Did you get enough sleep?”

I shrug. “I got enough.”

We jump when Mom plunks down a pot of soupy rice. She goes back to grab the pickled radishes, dried pork sung, and rice gluten. They plop onto the table with an equal amount of force, and I flinch. Instead of sitting down with us, she disappears into the bedroom.

Dad sighs. “Eat up. I’ll go check on Mom.”

He leaves the table. We hear the door open and close a minute later. I sag against the back of my chair.

“She’s really pissed this time, isn’t she?”

“You know it’s not just about you, Bunbun,” Jeannie assures me. “The contest went completely sideways yesterday, and you know how she gets when things don’t go . . .”

“Perfectly. Yeah, I know.”

I shouldn’t say anything more, but the words tumble out of my mouth.

“This only happened because she went trolling for guys to set me up with. She normally screens the contestants to make sure they have enough skill and experience to compete.”

“Even if that’s true . . .” Jeannie starts.

“You and I both know it is.”

“Even if that’s true,” she repeats, “she couldn’t have predicted Harold’s burn or Timothy’s tantrum, not to mention Michael’s disqualification. There’s also co-judging with Mrs. Lee, which can’t be easy.”

“Now, that’s something I don’t get either. Why did she ask Mrs. Lee to judge anyway?”

Jeannie’s fork freezes halfway to her mouth. “You don’t know?”

“Know what?”

“She told me a lot of her sponsors weren’t planning on donating this year,” she informs me, food now forgotten. “They felt like the contest hadn’t gotten them enough publicity. Getting Mrs. Lee on board was the only way to convince them to remain sponsors.”

I frown. “Why didn’t she tell me?”

“Apparently, you two weren’t talking at the time.”

“It must have been right after I asked to enter the contest.” I groan and put my head in my hands. “I threw Mrs. Lee in her face too.”

Dad returns shortly after with Mom in tow. She sits stiffly in the chair he offers her. I keep my eyes on my bowl and spread the condiments evenly over the surface of my rice so each bite tastes the same.

“You’re grounded.”

I don’t look up but nod to show I heard her.

“Until the contest is over. You’ll only be allowed to go to the bakery and out with the family.”

“Can Grace or Sarah come over, at least?” I venture.

“No. I don’t think they’re good influences on you anymore. Especially Grace. Too Americanized.”

I clench my fists. Mom’s overreacting, as usual, but I know better than to argue with her. Jeannie does her best to talk Mom out of it, but as soon as she lets slip I was with two of the contestants, I’m done for.

“What were you thinking?! Do you not understand the importance of maintaining impartiality as a judge? If anyone had seen you with them, the contest would be over!”

“I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t think—”

“You’re right! You didn’t think!” Mom scoots her chair back abruptly, the legs screeching against the floor. “I shouldn’t have made you a judge. It was my mistake trusting you.”

Her words sting more than expected. I lash out.

“What about you? Why did you turn this into some ridiculous dating service?” I shout, waving my hands in front of me. “I don’t need your help finding a boyfriend, and I definitely don’t want it!”

“Really? Then why were you with those two boys last night?”

I start to say it was for Grace, but dragging her into the argument won’t solve my problem. Jeannie interjects.

“Mom, I’m the one who told her to go have some fun. If you want to blame anyone, then blame me.”

Mom points a finger at her. “I do blame you! You should have set a better example for your younger sister. Instead, this is what you teach her?!”

Haˇo le, okay, no more,” Dad says, finally stepping in. “I know you’re angry, laˇo pó, but you’re being too harsh. They’re good girls, and they’ve never caused us any real trouble. Liza’s already apologized, and you’ve punished her. That’s enough.”

While his words are gentle, his tone is firm. Dad rarely puts his foot down like this, and we all stop arguing to listen.

“You’ve been working nonstop to get this contest off the ground,” he continues. “You need to take it easy and get some rest.”

“You’re right. I’ve been getting a lot of headaches,” Mom agrees, a hand on her forehead. “Maybe I’ll go lie down for a bit.”

Mom excuses herself and walks off without touching any of her food. My heart twists in my chest.

Dad looks at Jeannie. “Didn’t you mention you have plans with that boy Nathan today?”

“Oh . . . uh, yes.”

“Then go. Just be back for dinner.”

She peers at me before nodding. “Thanks, Dad.”

He waits until she leaves before leaning against the table on his forearms and pinning me with his stare.

“You know Mom only has your best interest at heart, Liza. When you didn’t come home on time, she thought something terrible had happened to you.”

“I know.” I bow my head. “I’m sorry.”

He sighs. “If you really want Mom to back off on setting you up, there are other ways.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve got to think more like her and less like you.”

I squint at him. “That’s an impossible task, Dad.”

“Hear me out. How does Mom pick the guys she tries to set you up with?”

“Well, she has a checklist. Tall, smart, Asian, traditional, will make a lot of money, etc.”

“Exactly. So use that to your advantage. Eliminate guys by finding their faults and exposing them.” Dad taps his fingers on the table. “For example, Timothy. He acted like a two-year-old, and she hasn’t stopped complaining about him since.”

“So he’s off the list.”

Dad grins. “You bet he is.”

“And Harold?”

“Maybe you didn’t notice, but he’s not exactly a clean boy.”

I make a face. “Oh, trust me, I noticed.”

“There you go, then. Two down, eight to go.”

A light bulb goes off, and the weight on my shoulders grows lighter.

“Technically, it’s four down. Michael’s mom is probably too pissed to want anything to do with us. And contestant nine, Ben? He’s dating Grace.”

Dad cocks his head to the side. “What about the one who’s always with him? The other boy you were out with last night.”

“Oh . . . that’s James, his cousin.”

The second I utter his name, my cheeks grow hot. Dad raises his eyebrows.

“I’m guessing you don’t have any objections to him?”

“Um . . . not yet,” I say, looking down at my lap.

“Well, he does fit some of Mom’s criteria,” he says, ticking them off. “He’s tall, handsome, and won the first brilliant baker of the contest. If you like him, you need to find out what else he’s got going on.”

I bite my tongue to keep from spilling the beans about our moonlit stroll.

“Okay, will do.”

“There is one more thing.” He glances at me and winks. “Contestant number three . . . Edward. I think he’s your mom’s favorite.”

“I knew it! Why does she like him so much?”

“You mean other than the fact he’s your age, going pre-med, and attending the same university as you in the fall?”

I snort. “Yes, besides that.”

“I think he might be related to that Reuben boy. I overheard Mom talking to Mrs. Lim the other night.” He leans forward. “Plus—and you didn’t hear this from me—I think she’s coaching him a bit.”

“Why does this not surprise me?”

“I think she’s definitely trying to help him win you over. Hence, the infamous cookie picture.”

Great. For some unknown reason, Mom is determined to merge our families. Okay, I lied. I know very well why she’s doing this. Mr. Lim is a US Representative for our state. I found out accidentally when I overheard Mom lamenting Reuben’s canceled dinner with us to her friend over the phone.

“Will you help me convince Mom he’s not a good match either?” I plead.

“All right, but this will be our little secret, okay? I’d like to live a few more decades.”

I come around the table and throw my arms around his neck. He laughs and pats me on the back.

“Just promise me you’ll try to be patient with Mom until everything is done, Liza.”

I cross my fingers behind my back. “I promise.”

“Okay. I need to head to the restaurant. Why don’t you come and help me out today? Danny’s on vacation with his family, so I’m shorthanded.”

It would be nice to get out of the house. I shudder to think what else Mom might say to me if I stay behind.

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll go get changed.”


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