We are taking book requests on our companion website. You can request books here. Make sure, you are following the rules.

A Taste for Love: Chapter 24

We walk all the way to the other side of the plaza. In the early afternoon sun, the trek is unbearably hot. By the time we step inside the teashop, I’m ready for a cold drink. I get in line, but Ben shakes his head.

“It’s my treat. Go grab a table and I’ll get your drink.”

I head to the back room and drop into a seat. Ben pops in about ten minutes later and hands me a drink before sitting down. He pierces the top of his cup with his straw but doesn’t take a sip. I suck some boba into my mouth to chew away my irritation.

Ben tugs at the collar of his T-shirt. “Thank you for giving me a chance to explain things.”

“I’m only promising to listen. That’s all.”

“That’s totally fair. I get it, and I appreciate your time.”

“So? What do you want to say?”

“Okay, I’ll just start from the beginning.” He drags his hand through his hair. “I’ve known Nathan for almost ten years. He attended Superbia with us. We all became friends, but it didn’t take long for things to change. Nathan thought James was always showing off how good he was at everything, and James didn’t like how often Nathan broke school rules. It got so bad I started hanging out with them separately so they wouldn’t fight. Still, when my mom needed an actor for the TV spot promoting her condo complex, I convinced her to hire Nathan.”

So far, his story is lining up with Nathan’s. Ben picks up the plastic wrap he removed from the straw, rolling it between his fingers absently as he continues.

“Last year, Nathan started inviting me to all these exclusive parties, and I was so impressed by how popular he was. There were even celebrities who knew his name. Sometimes he’d lie and say we were both twenty-one so he could drink. I never did, though. I swear.”

His eyes flit briefly over to me, conflict and fear stitched across his features. I keep my expression carefully neutral.

“My grades started slipping and my parents noticed, but I told them I just forgot to turn in some assignments. James was the only one who knew the truth, and I swore him to secrecy. I managed to pull everything up before the end of the semester, and things went back to normal. At least, until last Christmas.”

“What happened then?” I ask.

“Well, for one, Mr. Lee—Nathan’s dad—showed up drunk at my parents’ annual holiday party.”

I stiffen in my chair. “Wait. Did you say Mr. Lee?”

“Yeah. Nathan is Mrs. Lee’s son. You didn’t know that?”

My stomach flips, and I shake my head. Mrs. Lee mentioned her son the first time we met, but Mr. Lee is the only person I’ve seen a picture of. All of Mama Lee’s ad campaigns are like Hallmark holiday movies—the two of them, arms linked and smiling, holding their signature pastries. My mind flashes back to Nathan hiding behind his baseball cap during the highlight bake, and I realize it’s the only time he’s been in the same room with his mom. Was it just Ben and James he was hiding from? Or Mrs. Lee too?


Ben’s voice tugs me out of my thoughts. “Oh, I’m sorry. Keep going.”

“Well, I should explain something first. Nathan’s parents got divorced a few years back. They agreed to keep it out of the papers and keep up appearances for the business, but my parents stopped inviting Mr. Lee over out of respect to Mrs. Lee.” He takes a breath. “So when he showed up to the party uninvited, they got into an argument. Mom walked Mr. Lee out, but then he made a move on her and Nathan saw it.”

Like father, like son, apparently.

“Nathan started cursing and calling Mom names, and Mrs. Lee took Nathan home. After that, Mom called his agency and canceled the contract she gave him for the TV ads. That’s when everything fell apart.”

My heart lurches in my chest as Ben rushes through the next part, his eyes pinned on his still-untouched cup of tea.

“A couple of weeks later, Nathan asked if he could borrow my car for a party in the Hamptons. I said no, but then he started crying. He said he was really depressed about what happened and really needed the distraction. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have said yes, but he swore he’d be careful. I didn’t find out what had happened until the next day.”

I clutch my stomach as it churns in anticipation of what’s to come.

“The police came to my house and told my parents that my car had been found at the scene of an accident. Apparently, Nathan had a lot to drink at the party and ran into a telephone pole on his way back before passing out. Thankfully, no one else was hurt, but when the police got there, he failed the Breathalyzer. That’s when Nathan told them I was driving and had left so I wouldn’t get into trouble.”

I gasp. It’s hard to believe the same guy who charmed me and Jeannie could be so underhanded.

“What an ass,” I say.

Ben smiles wryly. “My parents and I ended up going down to the station for an interview. Our family lawyer had my blood alcohol level taken to prove I hadn’t had anything to drink, and my parents vouched for me being home when my car was caught on the toll cameras heading out of town. Ultimately, I was cleared of everything, but as you can imagine, my parents were furious. If I had been charged, it could have ruined my family’s reputation.”

“What happened to Nathan?”

“Nathan was charged with a DUI. He had his license revoked for six months and had to go to rehab for a month. He was lucky his lawyer convinced the police not to file additional charges for lying to them about me. After that, my parents forbade me from talking to him ever again. I felt bad about it, but I was already in so much trouble with them.”

I take a sip of my tea while I process this. “Was that it, then?”

He sighs and leans back in his chair. “I wish it were, but a few weeks later, my parents received an email from Nathan blaming us for getting him dropped from his agency. We had nothing to do with it, but he was convinced either me or James had leaked information to them. He threatened to talk to a reporter about it unless they gave him money to keep quiet.”

Impulsively, I reach across and grab him by the hand.

He grips my fingers in his. “My parents didn’t want to give in to his demands. Mom tried talking to Mrs. Lee first, but she wouldn’t even answer the phone. I guess Nathan must have found a way to convince her we were at fault.”

“What did you guys do then?”

Ben’s mouth tightens into a line as he recalls what happened.

“My parents ended up consulting our lawyer. He drafted a letter to Mrs. Lee threatening legal action if Nathan didn’t back off. Within a day or two, she called to apologize and promised she would take care of it. I found out later that they had a huge fight, and Nathan had to move in with a mutual friend for a while. After that, we didn’t hear anything from him again, but later James told me he had a run-in with Nathan outside his house. He wouldn’t tell me what happened between them, but afterward, our parents decided it would be best if we stayed away for a while. That’s why we ended up coming down here early.”

This whole thing has more twists and turns than a Korean drama, and I’m getting a headache trying to keep track of what I’ve heard. One thing is clear, though: Nathan is a liar. Abruptly, Ben glances at something that comes across his Apple watch.

“Do you need to go?” I ask.

“Oh, no, no,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s nothing.”

We sit in silence for a while. Ben finally takes sips of his tea, and I consider what to do next. I suppose after hearing him pour his heart out, the least I can do is try to mend it.

“Grace didn’t cheat on you with Nathan. He was the one who tried to kiss her, and she pushed him off. James didn’t see the whole thing.”

“What?” Anger sparks in his normally soft eyes. “Is she okay? Did he hurt her?”

“No. He didn’t. But you did, when you broke up with her without explaining why.”

I let that sink in for a minute. Ben slouches in his chair.

“I never wanted to hurt her. I just thought . . . James was worried Nathan was using her to manipulate me. James and Nathan have never gotten along, even before all the drama.”

“Well, I have some choice words for him.”

“Don’t blame him, Liza,” he begs, sitting up and leaning toward me. “James was trying to protect me. He’s always treated me more like a brother than a cousin.”

“Either way, he could’ve just asked me for the truth.”

“James doesn’t trust easily. A lot of people have tried to take advantage of him because of his family’s wealth. It’s not an excuse, but I wanted you to know.” Ben sighs. “He’s actually the reason I came looking for you today.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ever since your fight with him, he’s been downright intolerable. He hasn’t slept or eaten much in days. It’s why he bombed those bread challenges.”

Ben pins me with an earnest stare.

“Please give him another chance, Liza. You’re special. He’s never looked at anyone the way he looks at you.”

I open my mouth, but he cuts me off. “Just promise you’ll hear him out.”

After a beat, I sigh. “Fine.”

“Great!” Ben glances at his watch as another text pops up. “I’ll be right back.”

“I . . . wait a minute. What?”

Ben shoots out of the booth in a flash. When he returns, he’s not alone.

“Are you two planning on glaring at each other forever?”

I roll my eyes over to Ben, who looks ready to throttle us both. We’ve been sitting in the booth for a good fifteen minutes without exchanging a single word. James is slumped against his chair, his arms folded across his chest and his jaw set in a firm line. I’ve been staring at a torn piece of wallpaper as if it’s the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

When neither of us replies to his question, Ben throws up his hands.

“You guys are the most stubborn people I’ve ever met. You’re made for each other, if you’d only open your mouths and talk.”

He gets to his feet, jostling the empty cup in front of him.

“I’m going to use the bathroom. You guys better be talking by the time I get back.”

Two minutes after he leaves, I rise from my chair. I’m done waiting for an apology that will never come. I’m halfway across the room when chair legs scratch against the floor. The sound is accompanied by the sensation of fingers wrapping gently around my wrist.

“Don’t,” James utters in a low voice. “Stay. Please.”

I’m torn between yanking my arm away and sitting back down. James takes advantage of my indecision and steps closer, his hand sliding down to grasp mine. He takes a deep breath and looks me straight in the eye.

“Liza, I’m sorry.”

He strokes a thumb across the back of my hand. The resultant warmth that streaks up my arm and down my spine reminds me why it’s been so hard to stop thinking about him. Still, I know better than to let down my guard.

“Why should I believe you?”

James glances at the seat I vacated, but I don’t move. He swallows hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down.

“I was an ass. I should have believed you instead of jumping to conclusions, but I was trying to protect Ben. He’s been through so much already. When I saw how hard he was falling for Grace, I . . . I didn’t want him to get hurt again.”

This time, I do pull away, my chin jutted out as I glare at him.

“So you decided to break my—I mean, Grace’s—heart instead?”

“I honestly didn’t think she would take it that hard,” he explains, taking a step forward. “I mean, they had a lot of fun together, but I never saw anything that made me think Grace was serious about Ben.”

“Really? Not the fact that she texted and called him all the time? Or how she was always holding his hand? Oh, what about the nonstop hugging and kissing? That doesn’t count for anything either?”

He has the decency to look ashamed as he drags a hand through his hair.

“I . . . I guess I didn’t think about that.”

“No, you didn’t,” I assert. “But I did, because I know my best friend. Just because Grace likes to flirt and have fun doesn’t mean she isn’t serious about Ben. If anything, she was worried that he wouldn’t like her as much as she liked him.”

“But what about Nathan?” he asks stubbornly. “I saw them kissing.”

“What you saw was Nathan taking Grace by surprise and kissing her. You missed the part where she told him off.”

James stills at that. My piece said, I turn and head for the door. Ben shouts for me to wait, but I pretend I don’t hear him. Outside, I remember again that I don’t have a ride. I’m sure as hell not calling Jeannie, so I decide to head to Yin and Yang.

It’s a twenty-minute walk, but with the heat, it feels like forever. I’ve probably made it a third of the way when a car slows next to me. The window on the passenger side rolls down to reveal James inside.

“Liza, please get in the car. We’ll take you wherever you want.”

I scowl at him from the sidewalk. “I don’t need a ride from you.”

“Liza, don’t be ridiculous. It’s almost a hundred degrees outside.”

“Go away.”

After a second, the window goes back up, and Ben moves the car forward. He doesn’t go far, though, pulling into a parking lot about twenty feet ahead of me. James gets out of the car and intercepts me.

“Please get in the car, Liza.”

“I told you. I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“Fine. Then Ben can drive you, and I’ll call an Uber.”

James is wearing a button-down navy shirt and dark wash jeans. He won’t make it ten feet before being drenched in sweat. At least I’m dressed for the weather in my light blue T-shirt and white shorts.

“I’ll be fine.”

He presses his lips together, the movement reducing his dimple to a slash on his cheek.

“Stay here.”

I don’t want to listen to him, but he keeps one eye on me while walking back to the car. He ducks his head through the window and mumbles something. Ben protests, but James shakes his head. Seconds later, the car rolls away and James returns to my side with a determined look.

I gape at him. “What are you doing?”

“Walking with you.”

“I don’t need—”

He produces a bottle of cold water from behind his back. “Here. In case you get thirsty.”

I don’t know whether to punch him or kiss him.

Liar. You know exactly what you want to do.

I continue stomping down the sidewalk. I ignore him and keep my eyes on Yin and Yang in the distance, the sound of passing cars filling my ears. He quickly matches my pace, his longer legs striding effortlessly while my legs ache from the effort. All of a sudden, my calf clenches mid-step, and I fall to my knees with a hiss. James is on the ground in a flash.

“What’s wrong? What happened?”

The pain is excruciating, the cramp’s vise-like grip making it hard to breathe. Without a word, James helps me over to a table outside one of the cafes lining Bellaire Boulevard. Tears well in my eyes as he lowers me into the chair. All I can do is clench my fists and pray for it to end.

He peers at me. “I can try to help if you want. I used to get them when I ran track.”

Desperate, I nod. James kneads my calf with gentle, circular motions, starting behind my knee and working his way down. Little by little, the tightness begins to ease until all that’s left is a dull, aching weakness.

“It’ll be best if you stay off it for a little while,” he instructs. “Have something with potassium too, like a banana.”

I’m so grateful to be rid of the pain that I forget I’m supposed to be angry with him.

“I thought Ben was the pre-med major.”

He flashes a toothy smile. “Who do you think taught him everything he knows?”

His hands are still on my leg. Despite the sticky heat of the day, my brain registers the firm pressure of his fingers against my skin. James’s warm brown eyes beckon me closer, and I have to look away before I drown in them.

Ben’s car pulls into the parking spot in front of us. James tips his head toward it.

“Will you please get in the car now?”

I narrow my eyes at him. “Fine.”

Thank you. I feel like I’m in hell.”

I bite back my retort. He must read it in my eyes because he chuckles softly.

“I guess I deserve that.”

He helps me over to the car, and Ben opens the door for me. Both guys wait until I’m settled before climbing in themselves. The air inside is on full blast, and I sigh happily. Ben glances at me through the rearview.

“So, where to, milady?”

I consider asking for a ride home, but I’m struck by a better idea.

“I was going to meet Grace. We’re supposed to hang out at the Water Wall. Want to come with?”

“Um . . . sure,” Ben answers with a shaky smile.

I give him the address. As he enters it into his phone, I pull mine out and text Grace.

I’ve got a surprise for you. Meet me at the Water Wall in thirty minutes?


Let’s hope she doesn’t kill me.

We make it there before Grace, so I have them park in one of the mall garages close by. Ben and James follow me across the street to Waterwall Park, a semicircular wall sixty-four feet in the air. Water cascades down in large sheets along the inside, rolling down a series of steps near the bottom and gathering into a channel below. A triangular tipped gate with three Roman arches stands guard in front of it, and a grassy park lined by oak trees connects the Water Wall and Williams Tower.

Families and couples are having picnics and playing nearby as we enter the main viewing area. The sound of rushing water surrounds me on all sides, white noise hiding the daily traffic driving past. I smile as drops of water sprinkle onto my head and face and revel in the reprieve from the heat. Ben gestures excitedly at different parts of it while shouting something unintelligible to James. My phone buzzes, and I pull it out.

I’m here. Where are you?

I send her a reply and then tuck it back into my pocket.

“Okay. She’s coming,” I say to Ben. “Don’t screw this up.”

“I won’t,” he says, though a nervous smile plays on his lips.

I grab James by the elbow and tug him away.

“What are you—” he starts.

I shoot him a look, and he relents. I don’t stop until we’re tucked around the corner of the wall. We’re just far enough away to not be seen but close enough to watch how things play out.

I spot Grace rounding the corner before Ben does. When she sees him waiting near the center of the falls, she stops in her tracks, eyes wide. Grace turns to leave, but he catches up to her and throws his hands out in front of him. He says something, to which she shouts something in return. Ben continues to talk, alternating between shaking his head and pleading with her. I take an unconscious step forward when Grace bursts into tears, but James touches me on the arm.

“Let Ben handle it.”

He’s right. I’m the one who arranged this meeting, but he needs to do the rest. With every word, Ben inches closer, eventually enveloping her in his arms. She stiffens for a second and then relaxes into his embrace. He presses a kiss into her hair before leaning down and touching his mouth to hers.

“Looks like they worked it out.”

I twist halfway and find James over my left shoulder, a smile tugging at his lips. His gaze slides over to me, and he leans in so I can hear him over the water.

“I am truly sorry, Liza. For hurting Grace. For making assumptions about your family.” He pauses. “For hurting you.”

It’s hard to focus with his face so near mine, and his breath tickling my ear. His arm snakes across my waist and turns me so I’m facing him fully. His hand remains at my hip as our eyes lock.

“I hope you can forgive me.”

My fingers itch with the need to touch him, to smooth the furrow between his brows and trace the outline of his dimple.

“I forgive you.”

He steals the last word from my lips, his mouth capturing mine. My hands wrap around his neck as I press close, overcome with the need to prove this isn’t a figment of my sleep-deprived imagination.

This kiss is different. More frantic. More intense. Like we’re reclaiming each other. His hand trails up the back of my shirt. I intertwine my fingers in his hair. We only break apart for ragged gasps of air, our foreheads pressed together to stay connected. James smiles, the special kind I realize I’ve only seen when he’s looking at me.

“I missed you.”

“I missed you too.”

His lips meet mine again. “I’m sorry.”

“You said that already, but feel free to keep repeating it.”

James tosses his head back and laughs. I giggle as a sudden breeze sends mist our way, burying my face into the crook of his shoulder.

His voice rumbles against my cheek. “Do you think your mom would mind if I asked to date you?”

“Are you kidding?” I tilt my head back to gawk at him. “You check off all her boxes. She’d be thrilled.”

“What about your boxes?”

I pretend to think it over, and then shrug. “Meh.”

James proceeds to tickle me until I break free, running over to Ben and Grace and using them as shields. I try to fake right, but he catches on and captures me in his arms, effectively ending my escape.


I reach up and brush the hair off his brow, and he goes in for another kiss. It’s a while before my feet land back on the ground.

“I see you guys have made up too,” Grace says with a chuckle.

Ben smirks. “And not a moment too soon. He was driving me up a wall.”

“I was getting tired of Liza’s moping myself.”

“Hey!” James and I protest at the same time.

“See? Totally made for each other,” Ben teases.

The four of us walk around the park, sticking to the shade of the oak trees. My phone rings suddenly. It’s Mom. Oh no.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I say before she can start in on me. “I should have called earlier. I’m out with Grace at the Water Wall, and I’m fine.”

I don’t mention Ben or James. I’d like to keep the latter to myself a little longer. Rather than yelling at me like she usually would, Mom sounds oddly calm over the phone.

“I’m glad you’re okay. I was worried. Jeannie said you two had an argument.”

I lean against a tree trunk. “Yeah, we did. It’s a long story.”

“Are you going to come home soon?”

“I’ll leave in a minute.”

“Dinner will be waiting,” she tells me before hanging up.

Grace eyes me. “You gonna survive?”

“Sounds like it, but I should probably go home anyway.”

“Ben and I can drop you off,” James offers. “It’s not out of the way.”

As much as I’d love a few more minutes with him, I’m not ready to tempt fate just yet.

“Actually, I’m going to ride with Grace, if that’s okay.”

Somehow, James guesses what’s on my mind. “I thought you said your mom would approve of us dating.”

“I think she would, but with everything that’s happened with the contest . . .”

I freeze. Wait a second. The contest. I glance from Ben to James and back. Grace touches me on the arm.

“You think Nathan might be the one who stole the recipe book and trashed the bakeshop, don’t you?”

I nod. The two cousins exchange a look.

“Now that I think about it, it could also explain why I had salt in my sugar jar on cake day,” James says.

“I definitely wouldn’t put it past him,” Ben adds, staring across the grassy lawn. “Especially if he thought it would help him get back at us . . . or at least, back at James.”

“Why would ruining Mom’s contest do anything to James?” I ask.

Ben raises his eyebrows at me. “Because.”

I follow the path of his eyes over to James, who’s giving the buttons of his shirt rapt attention. As I watch, he turns more crimson by the minute.

Oh. Oh.

I thread my fingers through his, and he gives me a lopsided smile. I turn back to Ben.

“If he’s really the culprit, how are we going to prove it? I’ve already tried talking sense into Jeannie. She won’t listen.”

James brings my hand up to press a kiss to my knuckles.

“Don’t worry. I have a plan.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


not work with dark mode