A Taste for Love: Chapter 6


I try my best to get through the rest of the day, but I’m as good at dodging gossip as Tom Holland is with spoilers. It doesn’t help that friends keep texting to ask if I’m okay. Still, they’re nothing compared to the smug grins of the girls in the hallway. When the last bell rings, I make a break for the sanctuary of my car. Since Mom set the Do Not Disturb while Driving on my phone, I don’t notice the two new messages until I’ve pulled into the driveway.

Someone said they saw you with some hottie this morning, Sarah sent. I stan, btw.

Where’d you go? the one from Grace says. You’re supposed to meet me, remember? Fake project?

Shit. I totally forgot. Luckily, Mom’s working at the bakery until seven—the one good thing going for me today. I drive over to Boba Life and find a spot right in front of the shop. My hand is on the door when I hear my name.

“Liza! Liza!”

I glance to my left and see Sarah jogging toward me.

“Sarah! What are you doing here?”

I give her a quick hug. She puts a hand over her brow and peers into the teahouse.

“Grace told me you two were meeting up here. Figured I’d come hang out with you guys.”

Sarah pulls open the door, but I step through first and lead her to the back room, where she hugs an equally surprised Grace at our booth.

“I didn’t know you were coming,” she says to Sarah.

My eyebrows shoot up. “I . . . thought you invited her.”

“Neither of you did,” Sarah interrupts with an exaggerated pout, “but both of you should have. I’m hurt.”

“Sorry,” Grace and I murmur at the same time.

Sarah brightens in the blink of an eye and glances around the room.

“This place is so cute! Is this like an Asian Starbucks?”

“Starbucks serves coffee, Sarah, not tea,” Grace corrects.

“Starbucks serves tea too.”

Grace prepares to launch into a speech, but I shake my head. There’s a reason we don’t invite Sarah to Chinatown. Her family moved from a tiny town in central Texas a year ago. While she’s super chill and fun to be around, ignorant things tend to come out of her mouth at the worst possible moments.

“It’s kind of like a Starbucks,” I explain, “but better. They don’t just serve tea. They also do smoothies, ice blends, and coffee too. Oh, and there’s the sinkers. They’re the best part.”

“What’s a sinker?”

I wave at the row of multicolored jellies, puddings, and boba lined up behind the glass case next to the register.

“Those are sinkers.” I point at a freshly made milk tea on the counter. “We like the boba. You can get them at the bottom of your drink and suck them through a big straw. It’s fun.”

Sarah scrunches her nose. I spot Grace stiffen in my periphery and grab Sarah’s hand.

“Come on, I think you’re gonna love it.”

Grace stays behind to hold our table, which is just as well. After her trip to Taiwan last summer, she’s been hyped up on national pride. I can’t count the number of times she’s corrected people when they call her Chinese. I don’t mind, though. She’s introduced me to Jay Chou and Jolin Tsai, not to mention the black hole of T-dramas on Netflix.

We get in line, and I show Sarah how the ordering is done. She reluctantly agrees to try a sample of boba, and I bite back a laugh at the faces she makes while chewing. She bursts into a grin.

“Okay, I take it all back. I love this stuff! It’s like a gummy bear I can put in my drink! I can’t believe you guys didn’t bring me here sooner! I’m going to try all the flavors and sinkers!”

“I’d . . . just avoid the durian,” I warn her half-jokingly as we sit back down at the table.

“Why?”

Grace laughs, choking on her tea. I pat her on the back before offering Sarah an explanation.

“It’s an acquired taste,” I say. “It’s common in Asian countries, but not everyone likes it. I’m personally not a huge fan.”

“Me neither. It smells horrid,” Grace adds, far less tactful. “And tastes even worse.”

Sarah blanches. “Got it. Scratching it off the list.”

We lapse into silence, sipping on our tea and watching people come and go. I notice Grace tapping her nails on the table, but the two of them have the decency to let me drink some of my tea before peppering me with questions.

“Okay, I have to know,” Sarah blurts. “Who was the guy?”

“What did Brody say when he found out?” Grace asks simultaneously.

“I heard he was, like, super hot,” Sarah says.

“I heard Brody punched him in the face,” Grace whispers, smirking.

I roll my eyes. “Okay, first of all, nobody punched anybody.”

I recount what happened this morning, a twenty-minute ordeal because I keep getting interrupted with questions. Finally, the two of them sit back in their chairs.

Grace frowns. “Are you telling me this random guy defended you and then . . . insulted you?”

“Yep.”

“I don’t get it. He sounds so hot,” Sarah murmurs with a mouthful of boba.

“Exactly. He’s hot. He’s probably never had to be nice to anyone in his life,” Grace asserts, planting one elbow on the table and resting her chin on her hand. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought Liza was going to faint dead at his feet.”

I chuckle. “I think you’ve been reading too many romance novels.”

“And whose fault is that?” she counters.

“Whatever. We both know your life is better with the Bridgertons in it.”

Grace crosses her arms in front of her. “Fine, but my point stands. The hot ones only care about themselves.”

I catch the tiniest quiver in her voice as our eyes meet. She’s thinking about Eric again. It’s been three years, but you never forget the first time a guy breaks your heart.

“Mmm. Fair enough,” Sarah utters, unaware. “But would you go out with him if he asked you?”

“Totally, because I haven’t dated enough jerks for a lifetime,” I answer with a playful shove. “Of course not. I don’t even know his name, and I’ve never seen him around school.”

“Maybe he just doesn’t do first impressions well. I think you should give him a chance.”

“Says the girl who hasn’t gone on a date with anyone the whole time we’ve known her,” Grace teases.

“Hey! I can’t help it if I have standards.” Sarah twirls her hair around a finger. “Besides, if I want to be as successful as Jessica Pratt, I need to practice day and night. Getting into SMU is just the first step.”

I don’t have a clue who Jessica Pratt is, but it’s easy enough to guess she’s one of Sarah’s idols.

“Oh, that reminds me. I’ve gotta go. Voice lesson,” Sarah tells us after a glance at her watch. “But you’d better text me if Mystery Guy shows up again, Liza.”

“It’s a deal.”

We exchange hugs before she leaves. I go up and order two more teas before sitting back down with Grace.

“What did your parents say when you told them you wanted to take a gap year?”

She plays with her straw. “They weren’t super into it at first, but I told them I could spend it interning in Taiwan. We have a family friend who works for one of the big TV networks, and she offered me a spot with them.”

“Really? That’s amazing!”

“Yeah, I guess so,” she replies. “Especially since I’m still not sure what I want to do just yet.”

I prop my chin on one hand. “And your parents don’t mind that you don’t know?”

“Not really. I mean, they want me to be happy with whatever I decide. As long as I graduate, they’ll be okay.”

I shove aside the jealousy that pops up immediately. Grace is an ABC—American-born Chinese—and so is her dad. Her mom’s family immigrated when she was ten. As a result, her parents keep a lot of the same traditions, but they’re also way chiller.

A kid at the next table stabs a fried squid ball with a toothpick, and my stomach calls out to it.

I nudge Grace. “You want to grab something to eat? I told my mom I’d be out late so she wouldn’t invite Reuben over.”

“She’s still at it?” she asks. “My mom gave up a long time ago.”

“That’s because you date the right kind of boy now,” I tell her. “Not like me.”

Her stomach joins mine in a symphony of gurgles.

Grace grins sheepishly. “Yeah, dinner sounds great.”

We grab our empty cups and toss them in the trash. Outside, neon signs of all colors and sizes fight for our attention in the shopping plaza. I peer over at her.

“What’re you in the mood for, Grace?”

She shrugs. “You pick.”

“I feel like Korean barbecue is the only acceptable choice given the day I’ve had.”

“Agreed. Let’s go.”

I lead us away from Boba Life and down the row of shops until we reach the building at the end. All our senses are bombarded as we step through the door of Tofu City. To the right of the hostess stand is a glass case of sampuru, plastic models of their most popular dishes. K-pop plays over speakers tucked into wood-slatted walls while a TV plays the accompanying music video. Steam rises above the many grill tables to the melody of sizzling meat.

The place is packed, so after putting our names down, we stand off to the side and wait. It doesn’t take long for our clothes to absorb the smell of the food. It’s a badge of honor, really. The mark of those who have met the challenge of fire and conquered it. I turn to say something to Grace, but she’s smiling at someone past my shoulder.

“Who are you looking at?”

“No, don’t—”

Oh, wow. No wonder she’s distracted. The guy sitting with his back to the far wall is so pretty, it’s intimidating. His black hair is parted slightly off center, the ends gracing the peaks of his brows. His face is annoyingly symmetrical, and when he smiles, I feel the sudden urge to giggle. Only Grace could date a guy like him and not look like a troll. I nudge her with my elbow.

“I thought the hot ones weren’t worth your time.”

She glances at me. “I never said that.”

Her eyes drift back to the hot guy, and I swallow a laugh.

“Right. I guess I misunderstood.”

Our hostess calls my name. We follow her over to a table along the back wall. Before she can put the menus down, Grace gestures at the empty one right next to Pretty Boy.

“Actually, I like that table better.”

The middle-aged woman doesn’t hide her scowl but moves us over anyway. Grace makes me sit on the same side as Pretty Boy so she has the perfect view. After a few minutes, our waitress, a stout girl with large brown eyes, comes by with two glasses of ice water.

“You know what you want?”

“Can you give us another minute?” Grace asks.

The waitress huffs and walks off. I always get the same thing, so I wait for her to look over the menu. Unfortunately for me, she’s too busy checking out what’s next door to order. When the waitress swings by a second time, I nudge her with my shoe.

“Grace, I’m starving, and she’s waiting on us to order.”

“You pick something for me,” Grace mutters.

I sigh. “Um, one barbecue combo and one bibimbap combo, both with mushroom tofu soup.”

“How spicy?” the waitress asks, pointing at the flame scale.

“Number one spicy for me.”

Grace’s eyes are still pinned on her prize. The hangry part of my brain demands justice, so I give in to the prank.

“And number three for her.”

The girl leaves to put in our order, and I take the opportunity to take a closer look at Pretty Boy. He’s sitting by himself, but there are two settings on his table. He also hasn’t ordered anything. While Grace bats her eyelashes at him, he’s focused on the front door. Every time a guy walks through, he straightens and then slumps back into his chair.

Since I want an actual conversation with dinner, I twist in my chair and stick my hand out.

“Hi. I’m Liza, and this is my friend Grace.”

His easy grin stuns me for a moment. “Hey! I’m Ben. Nice to meet you both.”

Grace giggles when he turns to flash her a smile. I bite back a groan. Most of the time, she’s a warrior queen and my voice of reason. Today is not one of those times.

“Are you eating by yourself?” she practically purrs.

“Actually, I’m waiting on my cousin to get here. He texted me to say he was parking.”

“Good luck to him,” I quip, waving toward the door. “Chinatown on a Friday night is like a BTS concert.”

Ben laughs, a soft, gentle sound that fills me with warmth. If he wasn’t sitting right there, you wouldn’t be able to convince me he’s real. Only book boyfriends are that perfect.

“Oh, there he is!”

He waves at someone by the door. As his cousin steps into view, my heart sinks.

It’s him. Broody hero guy.

“I saved you a seat, James.”

So that’s his name. It’s far too nice for someone like him.

I turn to tell Grace he’s the guy from the parking lot, but she’s too busy flirting to notice my attempts at getting her attention. James weaves between tables and waiters with enviable grace, sliding into his chair with one smooth motion. Unbidden, my eyes search for his secret dimple.

No, Liza, stop it. Remember. He was a total jerk to you.

But he came to your rescue this morning, a traitorous little voice chirps in my head.

I squash it like a cockroach beneath my shoe.

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

Mr. Broody is staring directly at me, his expression quizzical.

I stammer. “What?”

“I said, why are you looking at me like that?”

“Like what?” I echo stupidly.

“Like you want to step on my head.”

A strange giggle bursts from my chest. It ends as a squawk as I slap a hand over my mouth. Grace hides her smile behind her hand, while Ben chuckles lightly.

“You always know how to make an impression, James,” he says. “Two minutes, and she’s already pissed at you.”

“I’m not pissed at him,” I practically shout. “I . . . I have a stomachache.”

James recoils as if the very air around him is contaminated, while Ben leans in with a frown.

“Has it been happening for a while?”

“Er . . . not really. It only just started,” I hedge, playing with an earring.

“Well, you haven’t eaten anything yet, so it’s probably not a stomach virus,” Ben surmises with a purse of his lips. “Maybe you waited too long to eat today. Did you have lunch?”

I start to answer, but James interrupts.

“Or it could just be a stomachache, Ben,” he says, glancing up from his menu. “Not everything has to be a disorder.”

Grace glances between us. “Did I miss something?”

“James is just teasing me, Grace,” Ben answers, cheeks tinged pink. “Because I want to be a doctor one day.”

“A doctor?”

Grace repeats the magic word. At least five Asian moms turn toward our side of the room, their heads popping up like meerkats in a nature documentary. Ben doesn’t seem to notice, his eyes drawn to her.

“Yes. A future one, hopefully.”

Even our waitress is summoned by his choice of career. She appears at their table with a fresh coat of mascara and coral lip gloss. Her hair, which had been in a messy bun, is now brushed and pulled back into a ponytail.

“Are you ready to order?”

She licks her lips, her eyes shifting between the two cousins like she’s trying to decide which one is tastier. I bite my lip to keep from laughing. The waitress eventually settles on James and hovers over his shoulder with a hopeful smile. He’s busy staring at the menu, so she clears her throat.

“What would you—”

“I’ll have the barbecue rib combo,” James interjects brusquely. “With mushroom tofu soup, level two.”

He raises his eyes only to make sure she’s written down his order. He then pulls out his phone and starts fiddling with it while our waitress deflates. Ben makes up for his cousin’s rudeness with a bright grin.

“I’d like the bibimbap with seafood tofu soup, please.”

She blinks furiously, her pen frozen over the pad. I think he broke her. James finally glances in her direction.

“Did you hear what he said?”

She jumps. “Oh, yes, bibimbap with seafood tofu. Got it.”

Our waitress skitters off. A second later, she returns and bows her head at Ben.

“I’m sorry. What level of spice do you want for your seafood tofu soup?”

“Oh. Um, number two, please.”

She makes a hasty exit. Ben stares at James reproachfully.

“What?”

“You didn’t have to be rude, James.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The waitress?” Ben tips his chin in her direction. “You could have given her a minute to catch my order. I think you hurt her feelings.”

“It’s her job to write down orders quickly so her customers don’t go hungry,” James answers matter-of-factly. “I thought she didn’t hear what you told her. That’s all.”

“Still . . .”

He arches one brow. “Let me guess. You want me to apologize?”

Ben nods. Secretly, I expect James to shake him off. Five minutes in his presence was enough to know he’s not the type to say he’s sorry.

His face softens, and he sighs. “Fine. When she comes back, I’ll apologize.”

What did he just say? Someone please come pick my jaw up off the floor.

Ben grins triumphantly. “Thank you.”

I peer at Grace. She’s normally the first to call this stuff out, but her lips are sealed tonight. Ben shifts in his seat so he’s facing her.

“So, do you guys go to school nearby?”

Grace brightens. “We’re seniors at Salvis Academy.”

“Me too! But I’ve only been enrolled since spring break,” Ben says.

“Wait, really? But I haven’t seen you around school.”

He squirms in his chair, glancing over at James.

“Well, uh, I’m not on campus much. Since it was so late in the year, my mom talked the school into letting me take my classes online. I only needed a couple to graduate, but she thought it would be good for me to come down before I start college in the fall.”

That’s a first. The teachers at Salvis are sticklers for attending classes. Ben’s family must be super important if Principal Miller made an exception for him. I frown as something else occurs to me and I turn to James.

“Is that why I ran into you in the parking lot this morning? You’re also doing online classes at Salvis?”

All three heads swivel my way. Grace’s eyes widen, and I give her a quick nod.

James sits back and crosses his arms over his chest. “No. I graduated early.”

“So you were what . . . feeling nostalgic?” I retort.

Grace kicks me under the table. I bite back a moan as she cocks her head.

“I left my wallet at his house,” Ben explains. “I asked him to bring it to me.”

“What have you been up to since graduation then, James?” Grace asks.

“I’ve been working at my dad’s consulting firm.”

“James has always been the smarter of the two of us,” Ben teases. “Though I’m way more charming.”

A dumpster full of rotten eggs would be more appealing than James, but I keep that to myself.

“Well, it’s nice to officially meet you,” I say instead. “Now that I know your name.”

James shrugs. “It didn’t come up before.”

“Really?” My eyes narrow into slits. “Because I remember specifically asking—”

Grace aims a warning glance at me before turning to give Ben a melting smile. “I hope to see you on campus sometime.”

“You will,” he answers, winking. “Salvis seems quite nice.”

James snorts. “It’s not nearly as well-maintained as Superbia. The campus is small, and they’re only the tenth best academy in Texas.”

“What’s Superbia?” Grace asks.

“Oh! Superbia Preparatory in Manhattan. That’s the school James and I went to.”

“Really?” Grace gestures at me. “Liza’s sister, Jeannie, lives there. Liza’s going to visit her for a few days after graduation.”

Ben leans forward. “You have a sister?”

“Oh, um, yeah. She’s finishing up her sophomore year at NYU,” I answer.

“She’s also a model,” Grace volunteers. “A really successful one.”

I suppress a groan. Did she really have to say that? People always act so shocked—as if the thought of me being related to someone hot blows their mind. James looks over at me in that moment. His steady stare is unnerving, his blank expression making it hard to tell what he’s thinking. Thankfully, the server rolls our meals over on a metal tray. He arranges the small side dishes in the center of the table before transferring our individual plates.

Sopa is coming,” he tells us in a mix of English and Spanish.

“Gracias,” I reply with a polite smile.

“You speak Spanish?” Ben asks.

“Only a little. I took it for a couple of years back in elementary school. It was my parents’ idea.”

The same server comes by to deliver their dishes. My head jerks over to James when he starts conversing with him in Spanish. All I catch are a few words, but it’s enough to tell he’s fluent. The man’s eyes light up, and they chat for several minutes before the server excuses himself. James turns back to face us, and Ben laughs.

“Show-off.”

I have another word for it. Grace kicks me a second time under the table and shakes her head imperceptibly. She knows me too well. I shove a bite of seaweed into my open mouth to keep it busy. It isn’t until Grace nearly spits out the first sip of her soup that I remember my prank. She glowers at me.

“Sorry,” I mouth.

Grace pushes it aside and moves to her entree. Little of it gets eaten, because she and Ben keep up steady conversation. As for me, I’m happy to focus on the delicious flavors of my meal. James appears equally content with picking at his plate. When the checks arrive, Ben swipes ours off our table and insists on paying.

“No, I can’t let you do that,” I protest, trying to grab it. “We barely know each other.”

“Then I guess we’ll have to change that,” he says, looking directly at Grace.

She turns about eight shades of red. James, on the other hand, is a bit green in the face. I can’t say I disagree with him on this one. The idea of spending more time in his presence turns my stomach.

Since I have yet to fully master arguing over a check, I allow Ben to pay on one condition.

“You have to let us treat you next time.”

Ben looks at James for help, but he tips his head to the side.

“She’s got a point. We both know you’ve been taken advantage of in the past.”

I’m tempted to punch him in the face for the implication, but his words convince Ben to grudgingly agree.

“Fine, but it can’t be more than what I paid today. That wouldn’t be fair.”

I square my shoulders. “Deal.”

James, Grace, and I head toward the door while Ben pays at the counter. Once he’s done, we walk out together. Ben gestures at the parking lot.

“Where are you two parked?”

“I’m in the garage,” Grace tells him.

I point toward Boba Life. “I’m just down that way.”

“Then we’ll walk you both,” he asserts, offering Grace his elbow.

James opens his mouth, presumably to complain, but one look from his cousin and he snaps his jaw shut. Ben’s lips arch into another stunning smile.

“Lead the way.”

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