A Taste for Love: Chapter 8


The next night, I pick Grace up from her house and head to Dumpling Dynasty. With tan tile floors and cheap wooden tables, the most impressive part about the place is the framed pieces on the wall from the students attending the Art Institute of Houston.

Scratch that. The food is by far the best thing.

I drop her off at the front door to grab a table while I find a parking space. A few minutes later, I head inside. I’m dressed in my favorite T-shirt, featuring a picture of Stitch cosplaying Toothless. My hair is up in my customary ponytail, though strands have already escaped their binding to graze my jaw.

“Liza! Over here!”

I turn toward her with a ready grin. It freezes on my face when I realize who’s seated across from her in the booth. Dressed in a black-and-white-striped tee and ripped jeans, Ben’s all twinkling eyes and white teeth. James, to his right, swivels his head slightly to give me the once-over. His eyebrows rise slightly as he takes in Stitch in all his winged glory. I can’t tell if he’s impressed or embarrassed to be seen with me, but I’m fairly certain it’s the latter.

I drag myself over and slide in next to Grace. She’s wearing one of her favorite ballet-pink sundresses, with a halter neckline and flouncy skirt.

“You didn’t tell me anyone else was coming,” I mutter under my breath.

“I didn’t?”

She presses a hand to her chest like a Southern belle. I grit my teeth.

You don’t fool me, Grace Chiu. You’re going to pay for this.

“Oh, we didn’t realize we were crashing your dinner,” Ben says with a worried look.

“No!” Grace practically shouts. “I mean . . . you don’t mind, right, Liza?”

Do I mind that you’re forcing me to babysit your crush’s irritating cousin? No, not at all.

I force myself to relax against my chair. “Of course not. The portions here are huge. You’ll be doing us a favor.”

James, who has been wordlessly staring at the menu, regards me intently.

“Have you eaten here before? Is the food any good?”

“It’s great,” Grace answers first. “I love the pan-fried dumplings. Super flavorful.”

He glances over at her. “Most people add too much oil. I don’t like greasy dumplings.”

“Then don’t order it,” I deadpan without looking up from my menu.

That earns me a jab in the ribs. Ben snickers. I stretch my lips like Pennywise, and James’s eyes widen slightly.

“What I mean to say is there are many other dishes you can order here.”

He gulps. “What would you recommend?”

I consider another snide retort but think better of it. I turn my menu upside down and point at my favorite dishes.

“If I’m in the mood for dumplings, I order the leek ones. They’re just as good as the ones I’ve had in Taiwan,” I say. “If not, then I get the bean sauce noodles. Theirs is the best I’ve tried other than my Dad’s.”

“That’s right!” Ben glances up at me. “Grace was telling me your family owns Yin and Yang Restaurant and Bakery down the street. I hear it’s really popular.”

“It’s definitely one of the best places to go for Taiwanese food. Not that I’m biased or anything.”

He chuckles. “Even so, I’d love to eat there sometime. What do you think, James?”

I lean forward onto my forearms, issuing a silent challenge.

Go ahead. Say something bad about Dad’s place.

“Don’t worry, Liza,” Ben asserts. “James pretends he’s a food critic, but I saw him eat three-day-old pizza firsthand.”

“That was one time!” he instantly defends, coloring slightly. He turns to Grace and me. “There was a snowstorm in New York, and I would have frozen to death if I went outside.”

I cock an eyebrow. “So it was a matter of life and death, then?”

“If you’re referring to my stomach after eating it, then yes,” he says.

Ben and Grace crack up. Even I let out a laugh, but James remains impassive. Honestly, I’m not sure if he realizes he made a joke.

“Are you kids ready to order?”

We pause our conversation to pick what we want, and our waitress quickly jots down the orders. While we wait, Grace and Ben send looks at each other, while James takes in the casual decor in the restaurant.

“So, Ben, are your parents going to move down with you?” I ask.

Ben averts his gaze, a tense smile on his lips. “Uh . . . they’re not sure yet. My dad is the CEO of Eastern Sun Bank. They do have a branch here, but he travels a lot for work. We’re staying with my mom’s family in River Oaks for now.”

If Mom were here, she’d have his birthday, blood type, and favorite foods in less than five minutes flat. Since it’s just me, I leave it at that.

“Does that mean you’ll be in town all summer?” Grace asks, her eyes wide and hopeful.

“Probably. We might go up to the Hamptons at some point.”

The staff interrupts to drop off the pan-fried and cabbage dumplings. Both guys eye Grace’s plate with interest.

“You’re welcome to try some,” she offers. “I can’t eat them all myself.”

Ben’s answering smile sets even my heart aflutter. He plucks a pot sticker off the plate and dips it into a small pool of soy sauce.

“This is so good,” Ben says around the bite in his mouth. “James, you’ve got to try this.”

James pops one in his mouth. “Not bad.”

This is probably high praise from someone like him. Our two orders of leek dumplings arrive shortly after, and I dig in right away. My eyes meet James’s briefly, and a small smile touches his lips. I chide myself for noticing his dimple while Grace makes another attempt at conversation.

“So James, how are you liking it in Houston?”

He glances out the window before answering. “It’s okay. The traffic reminds me of New York.”

“Maybe Liza and I can show you guys around one of these days.”

He and I shift uncomfortably in our seats. Ben, on the other hand, is thrilled.

“I’d love that! We’ve been so busy with our families it’s been tough to figure out where everything is. Houston is so spread out.”

Once we finish our meals, I turn to Ben. “Okay, we’re paying this time. Just like we agreed.”

He grins. “Too late. I already paid.”

I swallow a groan. I should have known he didn’t really have to go to the bathroom a few minutes ago. Classic distraction technique. Undeterred, I slide the money across the table at him.

He shakes his head adamantly. “No, I won’t take it.”

“Ben, come on. I don’t feel right about this. We’re just friends having dinner.”

“Well, maybe I’m hoping things will change soon,” he says, glancing at Grace.

She blinks furiously, color rising up her neck. Ever unobservant, James interrupts the moment.

“We should get going, Ben. My mom’s waiting on us to help her set up the computers.”

“Is it that time already?” He glances down at his watch. “Oh, wow. Time flies.”

“Speaking of which”—Grace turns to me—“can you give me a ride home?”

We walk out to the parking lot as a group. It’s only May, but the air is already balmy. Fluorescent streetlamps spotlight the flock of midnight-colored crows perched on the roofs of nearly every car. They scatter as we walk toward where we’re parked but protest our intrusion with harsh cries.

Since it’s clear Grace and Ben want some time alone, I’m stuck distracting James. She’s going to owe me her firstborn at this rate.

“Uh, so . . . will you be here long?” I ask.

The soles of James’s black leather oxfords scrape on the gravel as he pivots to face me. He fiddles with the buttons on the sleeve of his steel-blue shirt.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I know Ben mentioned college, but you’re just working for your dad’s firm, right?”

“Yes.”

I take a deep breath and exhale. “Then . . . you’re just visiting?”

“No.”

My hands fist at my sides. Could he make this any more difficult?

“You’re just a fountain of information, aren’t you?”

He jerks back. “I’m sorry?”

“Never mind.”

“Our grandparents live in Sugar Land,” James suddenly blurts out. “And like Ben said earlier, I’m working with my dad’s firm, but I might stay for college. Rice offered me a full scholarship.”

“That’s where I’m going,” I say, ignoring the familiar pang in my chest when I think about my future plans—the ones Mom and Dad chose for me. “I would have guessed you’d be going somewhere Ivy League.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” I answer, rocking back on my heels. “You just seem like the type who’d care about that sort of thing.”

“Oh. I didn’t realize.”

Was that a tiny hint of hurt in his voice? My eyes skim over James’s features but find no clues.

“It was nice having dinner with you guys,” I force out.

“Really?” He blinks. “I kind of thought you hated it.”

You weren’t supposed to notice, damn it.

Guilt gnaws at my stomach, so I soften my tone.

“Really. I hope you liked the food.”

He slides his hands into his pockets. “Surprisingly, I did. The leek dumplings do remind me of the ones from Taiwan. Thanks for the recommendation.”

“Uh, you’re welcome?”

James smiles faintly. I glance over at Grace, but she’s busy giggling at something Ben said.

Think, Liza. What else can you talk about?

“My parents go back to Taiwan every year,” I finally say. “To find new recipes for Yin and Yang.”

“Do you go with them?” he asks.

I shake my head. “They normally go during the school year because flights are cheaper. Last year, they went on a tour of Japan too. I wish I could have gone with them then.”

“Japan is one of my favorite places to visit,” James tells me. “Especially during the cherry blossom festival. Ben and I went to Yoshino to see them last year. There’s a whole mountain of sakura trees there.”

My eyes flutter closed as I try to imagine it. “I bet it’s beautiful.”

“It’s one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see,” he agrees. “You should definitely go if you get the chance.”

“Meanwhile, all my parents got me was was a lousy T-shirt.”

For a second, he just stares at me. Then he does something completely unexpected.

He laughs.

The sound is foreign to my ears, but I find myself smiling even as I wonder what to make of this side of him. Thankfully, I don’t have to figure it out, because Ben and Grace finally make their way back to us. Their hands are joined, and they’re wearing identical sappy grins. James, on the other hand, scowls. So much for civility.

“I’m sorry I have to go.” Ben apologizes more to Grace than me. “We’ll have to get together again soon.”

“Yes, let’s do that! Right, Liza?”

Her eyes plead with me to agree. I take a deep breath and smile.

“Sure.”

“Then it’s all settled,” Ben says brightly. “We’ll figure out a time.”

We say our goodbyes and split up to head to our respective cars. After I start the engine, Grace turns to me with a devilish smirk.

“So . . . you and James, huh?”

“Excuse me?”

She pokes me in the arm. “I saw the way he was looking at you. He likes you.”

“Um, no. You need to get your eyes checked, Grace.”

“Why would you say that?”

“For one, the guy could barely stand talking to me, and the feeling’s mutual,” I say, eyes on Ben’s car as it leaves the parking lot.

Grace frowns. “Do you really not like him? He kind of reminds me of Darcy, with that whole awkward silent thing he does.”

“I’m offended on Darcy’s behalf that you would even say that,” I answer. “James is nothing like him.”

Grace tips her head toward me. “Okay, fine, but you have to admit, he’s total bae material.”

“Did my mom put you up to this?”

“Stop it,” she scolds, “and don’t change the subject. Tell me you don’t think he’s hot, and I’ll leave you alone.”

James’s full lips and strong jaw flash through my mind.

“I don’t think he’s hot,” I say with flaming cheeks.

Grace laughs. “You’re such a liar!”

“No, I’m not!”

My denial sounds empty to my ears too.

I feign a casual shrug. “Fine. James is nice to look at, but he’s got the personality of a honey badger.”

“Maybe he’s just shy.”

I roll my eyes. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She cackles. “Hmm. Lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

“Glad to see you were paying attention during English class, but you’re still totally off base,” I tell her as I tug at my seat belt.

“I’ll bet you an entire year’s worth of boba you two are gonna hook up.”

I jut my hand out. “I’ll take that bet.”

She gives it a firm shake.

I smirk as I head out of the parking lot. “You better start saving.”

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