Read Mai Tai'd Up Online

Authors: Alice Clayton

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Women, #Humorous, #General

Mai Tai'd Up (6 page)

BOOK: Mai Tai'd Up
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I wondered if any of the neighbors were watching this. My mother believed every last one of them was always perched on their sofa with binoculars and a bowl of popcorn, settling in for another episode of
What Is Marjorie’s Daughter Chloe Doing Today and How Will It Impact Life as We Know It?

The thing is, his arm
did
feel good around me. It would be easy to let him kiss me, let him clean up the mess I’d made, and settle back in, all the loose ends tied up. Or is it tied down?

“Are you in love with me, Charles?” I asked.

“What kind of a question is that?”

“It’s kind of an important question, don’t you think?”

“That’s just silly. Why would you ask me that?”

“Still not really an answer.”

He tried to pull me closer, but I resisted.

“Of course I love you, Chloe,” he finally said, not meeting my eyes.

“But are you
in
love with me?” I pushed.

“Are you in love with me?” he asked quickly, now meeting my eyes. And for the first time in my entire history with this very golden boy, he looked . . . unsure.

“No. No, I don’t think I am,” I answered, my eyes stinging. Endings were never good, even when they needed to happen. I slipped out from under his arm and stood before him as he leaned on my car.

He ran his hands through his hair, scrubbed at his face, and when he looked at me again, he was in problem-solving mode. “You go back to your dad’s, relax a bit, get a good night’s sleep, and then let’s talk tomorrow, okay?”

“No, Charles, I don’t think that—”

“This is all happening too fast. We need to slow down a bit, look at the practicality of this, figure out the best course of action to move forward.”

“You’re not listening to me, Charles. This isn’t going to—” I started, and he talked over me again as he walked toward his own car.

“I’ll call you in the morning, or stop by. Yeah, I’ll stop by and we can go for a drive, talk some more.”

“I don’t
want
to talk more tomorrow. Not if you’re going to continue to—”

“Okay, see you in the morning,” he finished, getting into his
car while I still stood there sputtering. He peeled out of the driveway, and I was left alone and frustrated.

“I can’t believe that just happened,” I said to myself, turning to get into my car. And as I did, I saw the curtains in the living room flutter. I waved to my mother—she knew she was caught.

I drove back to my dad’s, brought in my first suitcase, set it down in the living room, and told him, “I need to get the hell out of this town.”

He totally agreed with me. Which is why the next day I found myself driving up the coast, headed for Monterey.

chapter three

Here’s why my dad is the best. Without badgering or hounding, he asked only enough questions to understand why I needed some space. And he came up with a wonderful solution right away.

My father’s family had a ranch in Monterey, up in the hills just outside of Carmel. Almost smack dab in the center of the California coast, it was like another world. I hadn’t spent much time there in recent years, but when my grandfather died the property went to my father and his sister. And when Aunt Patty passed away a few years after that, the ranch stayed with my father. My mother hated it up there, so over the years our visits became fewer and fewer. It was a beautiful property, but it hadn’t been renovated in years and was badly in need of an update. It had a very specific look to it, sort of a time capsule scenario. But for what I needed right now? It was going to be heaven.

And heaven was also currently in this car, which currently held me, my suitcases, a forty-eight-ounce Coke (
not diet
), and three fried cherry pies that I’d bought at a roadside stand.

As I sped north, away from the questions and the talking-to’s
in San Diego, I was both excited and nervous. I’d never lived alone before. I hadn’t been to the ranch in probably five years, and Dad hadn’t been there in over two.

He had someone up there who kept an eye on it, people to come in and clean every so often, and a handyman who made the necessary repairs. Since no one had stayed there in quite some time, my dad had called in a crew to get it ready for me, and now I was moving in for as long as I wanted it. When my father offered it to me, I knew how lucky I was.

“You want to head up north to get some space, that’s fine with me, kiddo. I think it’ll be good for you to be alone for a while. Who knows, you might find you like it up there and want to stay.”

“I can hardly stay there forever. How adult would it be for me to just go from living in my mother’s house to living in my father’s vacation home?” I asked.

He laughed. “It’s not just my vacation home, it’s yours, too.”

“That’s sweet, Dad. I appreciate your letting me head up there for a bit,” I said as I went upstairs, thankful for the lifeline he was tossing me.

“The house is yours for however long you want it.”

“Pardon me?” I asked from the landing.

“Just keep it in mind.”

“I say again, pardon me?” I leaned down to peer through the banister at him.

“Pardon you nothing—take as much time as you need,” he said.

“You’re kind of amazing, you know that?”

“I do know that, actually,” he said, his eyes twinkling.

So while I had no real plans to stay up there very long, the idea that I could? If I wanted to? Options . . . kind of a good thing.

And options in a small, beautifully quiet town felt like exactly what I needed. I’d grown up on a stage. With dance competitions,
modeling competitions, pageants almost every other weekend, I’d learned very early on that anything worth doing is worth doing in front of people.

As I drove the longer, more scenic route up the Pacific Coast Highway, I realized that for so much of my life, I’d been posing. Literally posing, mentally posing, acting a part, or some version of the best foot forward. Even my engagement was for public consumption. At a San Diego Padres game.

“And as we pause for our seventh-inning stretch, there’s a certain young man in the stands today who has a very special question for a lovely young lady.”

We were in box seats behind home plate. And there was my face on the Jumbotron, just after I’d bitten into a hot dog. A hot dog that was not on my diet, and don’t think
that
didn’t get mentioned later on. Ladies, if you’re going to cheat on your diet, don’t do it in a place where there’s a Jumbotron.

Also, ladies? Don’t go on a fudging diet.

Back to the flashback.

As I hastily wiped the mustard from my chin, Charles sank to his knees in front of me—angled toward the camera, mind you—and presented me with an iconic blue ring box.

“Oh my God, what are you doing?” I whispered from behind the hot dog—angled away from the camera, mind you.

“What does it look like? Chloe, baby. Will you marry me?”

He opened the box, and the diamond was so large that the blimp flying overhead could have seen it.

“Wow,” was all I could manage.

By that time, the entire stadium began to chant.

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

“Yes,” I repeated.

And as Charles swept me up into a hug, then dipped me backward in a romantic fashion for a kiss seen in every romantic movie from the beginning of time, all I could think was: Too Much. Too Public. Too Not Private.

But it was a version of romance, and I let myself be swept away by it. I was only a year out of my reign as Miss Golden State, and now I’d been proposed to with a glob of mustard on my chin not only for the fans in the stands to see, but to be rebroadcast on the nightly news later on. Slow news day.

Slow news day indeed I thought as I turned my stereo to something hip-hoppy. I bounced a little in my seat as I sped up the coast, looking forward to some quiet time with nary a Jumbotron in sight.

H
ours later, I rounded the last bend of my journey and saw Monterey spread out before me. Situated on a natural bay, the city curved in on itself as it continued up the coast, the town twinkling in the early dusk. I’d driven all day, I was exhausted, and more than that, I was hungry. Not wanting to come all the way back down from the hills into town after getting set up in the house, I pulled into the parking lot of a small restaurant and slid my car into the last spot.

I stretched as I climbed out of the car, feeling my joints crackle and pop in the best of ways. Quickly braiding my hair and dotting on a little lip gloss so I didn’t look
so
road weary, I grabbed my purse and headed inside. Wide front windows took in the view of the bay, and cozy candles sat on the tables and booths. Tables and booths that were full, so I elected to eat at the bar rather than wait for a table. As I took a peek at the menu, I sipped a club soda. I still had a twisty, windy drive up to the
house that would now be happening in the dark, so I stayed away from the glass of wine I was dying to have.

When the bartender came back to take my order, I looked up and locked eyes not with him, but with a set of baby blues at the other end of the bar. The mirror that stretched behind the bar reflected everyone sitting there, including the guy the baby blues belonged to. Red hair that was just two or three shades deeper than strawberry blond, gorgeous hair. Prince Harry hair. Unbelievably, this guy was better looking that his royal highness, with an incredible tan, and—oh, look, now he’s smiling. Great smile.

While telling the bartender I’d take the daily special of local sablefish, my eyes kept going back to the blue eyes. I tried hard to keep my eyes on the man who was trying to decipher what kind of salad dressing I wanted from my “Hmm?” but I kept finding myself drawn back to the man in the mirror.

When I finished placing my order, those smiling blue eyes were gone. Which was a good thing; I had no business making eyes at anyone right now. I had a car full of suitcases packed with honeymoon clothes, and an engagement ring the size of a quail’s egg on my hand.

Wait. Why was I still wearing my engagement ring?

I looked down at it, stunned as I always was when I looked at it. J. Lo would be impressed, is all I can say. Every time I’d teased Charles about what a big ring it was, he’d told me it was bling for his baby. Yuck. The guy actually used the word
bling
.

Was he overcompensating for
something
? I preferred to think no, that this was a very generous and sweet and very public display of how much he cared about me. And yet . . .

I’d take the ring off after I got to the house; it wasn’t right that I still wore it. But for now, I sat in a bar 455 miles away from
it all, thinking semi-blushworthy thoughts about the cute guy with the blue eyes.

I
ate my salad, I ate my fish, I even managed to eat some cheesecake, and eventually packed myself back into the car. Following the GPS directions, I twisted and turned my way into the hills, each bend in the road affording me an even better view of the lights of the town below. My father had hired someone to turn on some lights and make sure I’d have no problem getting in. And as I saw the gate for the ranch, I realized I was grinning big. I was so excited to see the house—it always felt so cozy and comfortable and gorgeous, all at the same time. I punched in the code, the old gates swung open, and I headed down the gravel drive.

It was originally a small cattle ranch, and though animals hadn’t been raised here in years, the old pastures and fence posts remained. Every ten yards or so there was a gas lantern atop a post, alternating sides, illuminating the driveway in flickers of flame. In the sixties my grandfather had expanded the original house, creating a wonderfully open space that was great for entertaining. And as I rounded the last curve and finally caught sight of the house, my grin got even bigger.

It was straight out of the Rat Pack. Pure California ranch style through and through, it was low, open, one story, and full of floor-to-ceiling windows. Incredibly innovative at the time, they slid on tracks so that you could open them all the way, creating an indoor space that was equally outdoors.

I grabbed my overnight bag, crunched up the gravel walkway, and took out my keys. Light spilled through every window; they
had
really left the light on for me. When I pushed open the door, a wave of nostalgia washed over me. Pine, sage, and a
night-blooming jasmine seeped in from the back garden. I set my bag down and turned in a 360-degree circle.

I could easily envision Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin hanging out, paling around. Low modular furniture in tangerine leather in the living room off to my left, offset by an enormous glass coffee table in the shape of a kidney bean. Big glass balloon lamps floated over matching deep red oval end tables. An area rug in a black-and-white diamond pattern screamed from the floor, but was tempered by the fountain—oh, yes, a fountain—that was bubbling away on the inset bar in the corner. The most authentic tiki bar you ever did see. Stacked with highballs, lowballs, old-fashioned bowl-shaped champagne glasses, and several sizes of metallic cocktail shakers. I told them I’d be taking one of them out for a test run tomorrow.

On my left was a dining room with a table that could seat twenty. An oblong tortoiseshell, it had chairs with alternating cushions of turquoise and gold. Over the table soared a chandelier that had always reminded me of the old-fashioned game of Jacks, with silver rods jutting out at all angles and spheres of blown ruby glass at the ends.

Under my feet a terrazzo floor poured out in a wave pattern toward the kitchen, where it met polished concrete. An enormous wall of custom cabinets, light blond wood above the largest orange Formica countertop anyone had ever seen. At least in my generation.

Down the hall were several bedrooms, including the master, where I’d be sleeping. But off the kitchen? That’s where I was headed. Through one of those enormous floor-to-ceiling glass doors was the most gorgeous terraced patio, inlaid Spanish tile set against adobe brick. There were tables and chairs and umbrellas everywhere, all in shades of sunny yellow and gold, like you might see outside a Tastee-Freez in the summertime. Three
levels of terraces with potted olive and lemon trees, and then the pool. Free form and lush, it was painted dark green, giving it a tropical lagoon feel. I gazed at it a moment, considering a swim, but my sore muscles were singing a different story.

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