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Authors: Rachel Hollis

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Humor & Satire, #Humorous, #Literary, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Contemporary Fiction, #General Humor, #Literary Fiction, #Humor, #Romance

Smart Girl (2 page)

BOOK: Smart Girl
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“Oh good, you’ve found the wine.” Viv laughs as she gives me a side-hug.

I squeeze her in return and point out the open bottles on various surfaces of their expansive back patio.

“I believe your husband is giving us a lesson in viticulture by offering up a bottle from every winery on the Central Coast. It wasn’t difficult to find the alcohol.”

“It never is,” Max adds sardonically before giving her mother a hug as well. “I think the directions to the nearest bottle of alcohol are written on the Ashton family coat of arms.”

“We have a coat of arms?” a slightly gravelly voice asks from behind us.

Just like every other time I’ve heard his voice, chills race down my arms. Just like every other time, I have to give myself a moment before I can fully face him, and when I do, I still can’t catch my breath.

Liam Ashton is kind of perfect looking. He’s tall with dirty-blond hair that’s gone so long without a cut that it’s almost at his shoulders. It has the slightest wave to it, so it curls in on itself and sometimes gets caught underneath his collar. I don’t blame it, though; I want to get caught under his collar too. What is it about a man with long hair? I used to think it was ridiculous, the kind of thing you’d find on romance-novel covers in the eighties. But then Liam grew his hair out, and I realized it was actually the hottest, most beautiful thing a man could do. Last time I saw him he’d just come from a workout, and he had his hair pulled up in a man bun. Honest to
dog
, I thought I was going to melt into the floor like a dying witch.

I’m pretty sure he spends most of his waking hours at Barker-Ash’s multimillion-dollar offices, but whatever is left over must be spent at the gym. Because his body . . . Holy hell, his arm muscles are bigger than my leg muscles—or would be if I actually had any kind of musculature in my legs. And the things those arm muscles do to the dress shirt he’s wearing should be illegal.

“Miko?”

I blink once. Twice.
Crap!
Was I ogling him again instead of following the conversation? Literally everyone is staring at me, waiting for some kind of response, only I have no idea what they’ve asked me. Max’s eyes narrow, and I swallow an unladylike gulp of wine.

Oh well, I’ll wing it.

“Yes,” I announce confidently.

Both of Max’s eyebrows rise.

“It wasn’t a yes-or-no question,” she tells me.

My eyes dart around the patio at the assembled group looking for an answer. Charlie and Viv are smiling encouragingly; Brody is playing with Landon’s fingers, so he’s no help; Taylor keeps rubbing small circles on Max’s hip with his thumb while she stares me down; and lastly, there is a set of deep-blue eyes the exact color of San Francisco Bay during a storm. They’re like a swirling vortex, and I fight the urge not to get sucked into them every time. So no help from any corner.

“Um, purple?” I try again to answer Max’s question.

Those stormy eyes spark with humor.

“Are you just throwing out random answers now?” Liam asks congenially.

I fight the urge to pop my knuckles and shrug instead.

“I thought I’d give it a shot.” I have another sip of wine to appear casual.

“Let’s go in for dinner, and you can tell us all about it,” Viv says, reaching out for Charlie’s hand. I nod thoughtfully.

“About purple?”

It’s an odd topic for them to choose, but I could probably write a thesis on the color if they needed me to.

Landon smiles kindly at me. “About all of the press coverage Max is receiving because of the bakery design you did for her.”

“Oh, right.” I grin at Viv and Charlie. “That
is
fun, isn’t it?”

My wedge pumps carry me in the direction of the dining room, but Liam’s voice pulls me up short.

“It’s
fun
?”

“Sure.” A golden piece of hair is losing the battle to stay tucked behind his ear. I look at it rather than his eyes. It’s easier for me that way. “It’s really neat that the Flour Shop is getting so much love.”

I glance up from that strand of hair in time to see a look of incredulity flit across his features.

“It’s neat? You think it’s
neat
? Do you understand how hard it is to get press like that without even trying?
Dwell
,
LA
magazine,
Angeleno
,
Apartment Therapy
? Nobody just
falls
into coverage like this, and somehow a design you sketched out on the back of a napkin is garnering attention from everybody.” His good humor is bordering on exasperation. He never really gets annoyed—he’s far too charming for that—but I like to believe I’m the only one who gets him close. “Do you have any idea how much it would cost to have a PR firm try and snag that much press?”

Max steps back through the doorway in time to catch his last sentence. She frowns at her brother.

“Of course Miko knows.
Do you have any idea
who she is?”

I grin at her.

“Well, that sounded ominous
.
If this were a paranormal romance, that line would be the point in the book where I reveal some totally rad superpower.”

Liam looks from his sister to me in confusion.

“I’d likely choose telekinesis.” I tap the edge of my wine glass, considering. “Though a solid argument can be made for the advantages of elemental manipulation.”

Both of them blink at me like tall, beautiful owls. I sigh internally.

Nobody got my PNR joke. What else is new?

Since I can’t pop my knuckles, I take another drink instead. I think it’s time to find my seat rather than just stand here awkwardly.

“No.” His gravelly voice slides down my spine even though he’s talking to his sister, not to me. “Who is she?”

Max’s smile twists sideways before she answers.

“Google it.”

I can tell by the look on his face during dinner that Liam did exactly what Max had told him to before sitting down at the table.

“Miko Jin. Full-ride scholarship and graduated with honors from the Rhode Island School of Design,” he reads off his phone as he drops down next to me on the Matisse sofa. I’ve dubbed it thusly because it’s sitting underneath a real-life, honest-to-gods Matisse. Charlie and Viv have an incredible collection of art, but this one with its burst of vibrant color is my favorite. Each Sunday after dinner everyone typically has a drink or a coffee or samples Max’s latest dessert, but I’ve learned that if I park myself on this sofa, he’ll wander over and sit with me. I wonder if he even realizes it’s become a pattern. I do my best to look stoic while he keeps reading.

“Best known for having designed the Chelsea Club, the bar at Up Market, Mos Eisley’s West Coast headquarters, and Jonathan Julian’s flagship store.” Blue-gray eyes look up from the screen. I don’t tell him that every single one of those projects was a trade or something I did at an insane discount in exchange for the press exposure he’s so impressed by now. That’s how almost everyone gets press in a new field: they give their work away for free until they garner enough attention to charge exorbitant fees. I’ll go ahead and let him believe I’m already at the exorbitant-fees stage; that seems way more legit. “There are more design awards here than I even knew existed, and more celebrity events than I have time to list. How old are you?”

Design awards are awesome; they also don’t pay the bills. And the celebrity events? Until recently my former boss was the one growing rich off my work designing those. The age question is funny, though. I’m not sure what my age has to do with any of the things I’ve done. But I figured out awhile ago that Liam finds me interesting and that for some reason, finding me interesting tends to throw him off. Oh sure, it’s fine to make jokes and share anecdotes, but he usually never really seeks out any real information from me. It’s like if he doesn’t really get to know me, he doesn’t have to take me seriously. Finding out that I’m more accomplished than he imagined forces him to take a closer look. I wonder, not for the first time, if he’s thrown off because he doesn’t want to be intrigued by me and it bothers him that he is. I don’t know whether to be flattered or annoyed.

I answer him on an exhale. “Twenty-six.”

He stares at my face for a beat too long, and it actually feels like a physical caress on my skin. I wish I could wear his gaze around like my favorite vintage bolero.

“You’ve accomplished quite a bit for someone so young.”

“So have you.”

He tucks his phone back into his pocket.

“We’re not talking about me.”

My smile kicks up to one side.

“Aren’t we?”

Liam leans back into the cushions of the couch and crosses his arms. He’s the picture of casual innocence. I don’t buy it for a second. I can see something working behind his eyes.

“Why would you say that?”

I cross my legs, meaning to come across as prim and all-knowing. His eyes follow the movement of one leg sliding against the other.

Score one for the pencil skirt!

“Because you’re gathering actual information.”

“And?”

“And we never share actual information. Not since that first conversation anyway.” He looks away from me. Maybe it was wrong to bring that up here. I try to change the subject by answering his earlier question. “And because you’re angling, and if you’re doing it now, it must be because you want something from me.”

With a silent laugh he falls back into the easier conversation like the moment before hadn’t happened.

“Now that’s a loaded statement.”

His delivery is so perfect; it’s sexy and playful and full of swagger—and I get it. I totally get why he is one of the most notorious players in Los Angeles, because in this moment, I’d play any game he wants.

“Don’t flirt with me.” It’s the exact sort of thing a proper bluestocking would say to an impertinent duke. But it comes out strangled, because my throat doesn’t want to let the words escape my mouth.

He leans closer.

“Why can’t I flirt with you?”

He’s just trying to ruffle my feathers—but holy Moses Paltrow-Martin, is it working! My heart is bouncing around like that little blonde girl in the “Chandelier” video.

“Because you never follow through. You flirt and tease, and later you’ll pretend it didn’t happen.”

I could say more—I
want
to say more—but I kind of can’t believe I had the
cajones
to say even that much.

The real intensity between us dissipates like morning fog, replaced by a lazy grin that he pulls on like a well-worn jacket.

“I have a proposition for you.”

My sigh comes out shaky. I hope he doesn’t notice.

“What do you want, Liam?”

Gods, I like saying his name.

“I want to—”

In the split second before he finishes the sentence, my brain rapidly fills in several possible endings.

Take you on a date. Take you as my wife. Nibble your toes. Nibble your neck. Give you lots and lots of beautiful mixed-race babies.

Sadly, that’s not how he finishes the sentence at all, and I’m so surprised I have to ask him to repeat himself.

“Hire you,” he says again. “To design my new restaurant. What do you think?”

What do I think? Liam’s family members are some of the most successful restaurateurs in America, and a project for Barker-Ash is the exact kind of thing that could propel my design career into the next stratosphere. This is the type of opportunity that makes it possible to triple your going rate—or, at the very least, to buy the designer clothes from the
actual
designer. This could be huge for me and my career. But honestly, my career doesn’t even factor into this equation. What I think is that forced-proximity romance is one of my favorite literary tropes, that’s what I think! I take a deep breath and try to sound casual and only barely interested.

What I say is “What do you have in mind?”

Chapter
TWO

When I get home that night, Tosh is still exactly where he was when I left: sitting at the massive reclaimed-wood dining table he bought from Taylor a few months ago, working feverishly on a laptop that’s worth more than my life. Based on the number of empty Snapple bottles surrounding him, I’m guessing he hasn’t moved from that spot all day. He always gets like this when they release a new app.

I drop my bag on the table and start to gather up the bottles, but he still doesn’t pay any attention to me.

“Kitoshi!” I snap my fingers in the space between him and the screen. He finally blinks up at me.

“Did I do it again?” He slides his beanie backwards off his head and runs a hand through his flattened hair.

“Yes.” I gather up the rest of the bottles, walk them into the kitchen, and toss them in the recycling. “But your response time was less than a minute, so that’s better than usual. Do you want me to make you something to eat?”

My brother unfolds himself from his chair, and by the time he’s at the large center island in his state-of-the-art kitchen, his beanie is back in place. In polite society Tosh actually has a really cool fauxhawk, but he’s down to the wire on his latest project, and even at thirty, that beanie is like his security blanket. He grins.

“Are you implying that you suddenly know how to cook?”

“I’m
implying
that I can make you a turkey sandwich or open a can of soup.” I spy the recycling bin now filled with bottles. “Based on this trashcan, I’m guessing you’ve been living off Snapple Half ’n Halfs all day.”

He rubs a hand down his face in exhaustion and sits on the nearest barstool.

“That would be superb. I’ll eat two of anything you’d care to make.”

I heave open the door to the massive Sub-Zero. The giant refrigerator holds mostly bottled and canned beverages with all of the labels facing out, because disorder drives Tosh insane. We are alike in all other aspects, but his OCD is such a counterbalance to my disorganization that I sometimes wonder how we came from the same parents. Beyond the soda cans and bottles lined up in straight formations like a Communist army, the fridge also holds the ingredients for a sandwich, a frozen burrito, and milk for the Cocoa Puffs. Other than that, it’s just a really expensive box. But, like most of the things my brother owns, no expense was spared, even if he has no intention of utilizing it.

I pile each sandwich with enough turkey and provolone to choke a pony and then slide the plate across the counter to him. I’ve read
Chocolat
enough times to know that making food for someone is a great way to show your love. So even if I’ve only got rudimentary skills and a knowledge of cuisine that can best be described as “kid friendly,” I still do what I can.

“Are you almost finished with work?”

He looks totally beat, like he hasn’t slept in days. I’m almost positive that’s the case.

“I’m really close. Just fine-tuning and checking for bugs. How was your dinner?”

I can’t stop my happy little inhale.

“It was great. Liam asked me to design a new restaurant for him.”

Tosh looks up from the half sandwich left in his hand. Seriously, how do guys eat so fast? It would take me most of an afternoon to work through that much tryptophan.

“You sure that’s a good idea, Koko?”

I cock my head to one side to peer at him dubiously.

“Aren’t you the übersuccessful businessman who’s always telling me to take advantage of my design cred?”

The look he gives me is the same one he’s been turning on me all my life. I’d bet that the day our parents brought me home from the hospital he had this
who you trying to kid?
stare down pat.

“And aren’t you the one who’s told me at least a hundred times that Liam Ashton is the love of your life and the future father of your unborn children?”

“So?”

He looks concerned.

“So, do you really want to start off this love affair of yours as his employee?”

I start to clear up the sandwich ingredients.

“Beggars can’t be choosers.”

A scowl crashes into his features.

“I hate any scenario where you describe yourself as the beggar.”

He winces when I pop my knuckles. I hurry across the room and grab a bottle of water out of the fridge to cover up my tell.

Having devoured both sandwiches in no time flat, he comes around the island to put the plate in the dishwasher. When he’s finished he throws an arm around my shoulders and drags me in for a quick kiss on my head.

“You know I support you in all things, yes?”

I nod because I do know this. Tosh is my first and longest-running best friend, and he very rarely goes “big brother” on me. He’s the most accepting and supportive person in the world. There’s nothing we don’t talk about, no part of my life he doesn’t know. The fact that we’re so close is why I agreed to be his roommate. I knew he was worried about my ability to support myself while starting a company and wanted to keep an eye on me; he knew I wanted free cable. It works out for both of us.

“I will always be supportive of whatever you want to do, but it bothers me that you’ve been interested in him for so long and haven’t even gone on a date. What’s wrong with this guy that he’s not equally obsessed with you? If you like a woman, you ask her out—it’s that simple.”

I pull out from under his arm with a scowl. “Yeah, so where’s your girlfriend then?”

“I don’t have a girlfriend; I have a company. I can only handle one kind of drama at a time.” He turns and grabs a water of his own. “But we’re not talking about me. I’d like to go on record as saying that I’m concerned.”

I try to sound flippant. “Duly noted.”

His lips purse as he considers me a moment longer. Finally, thankfully, his curiosity overrides his concern.

“So tell me about this project.”

I agreed to meet Liam at the location of his new restaurant, a meeting that we set up via text. He was very professional and concise, not flirtatious in the least. But all I could think was
ShOMG!
Liam and I text each other now!

I am somehow able to find street parking right out front, which is a small miracle on a chilly afternoon in West Hollywood. I hop out of the car and make my way towards the front of the building. The busy street is packed with the kind of people who can afford to shop at the PDC down the block and spend whole afternoons lunching at the upscale eateries that fill the neighborhood. Even though I’m ten minutes early, Liam is already waiting for me in front of a nondescript single-story brick building.

It’s a weekday, and I’m guessing what he’s wearing is just his everyday look, but I had no idea how I’d react to him in navy-blue slacks and a matching cashmere sweater with just the tiniest hint of his white T-shirt peeking out along the neckline. And the brown leather oxfords to match? I don’t have words—I have heart palpitations, but no words for how handsome he is.

He’s typing feverishly on his phone, but he stops to look up as I step onto the sidewalk. I watch his stormy blue eyes take in my outfit: a charcoal cardigan over a blousy white button-down half tucked into black leather ankle pants and my black wedge high-top sneakers to add some much-needed elevation. Today my words are
professional
,
stylish
,
noticeable
.

He looks past me to my car and smiles briefly before gesturing for me to head inside.

“Not what you expected I’d drive?” I ask as he tugs open the heavy door.

“Actually, where you’re concerned, I’ve learned that things are never what I expect. However, upon discovery, they make absolute sense.” He silences his ringing phone and drops it into his pocket. “A mint-condition vintage Mini Cooper, for instance? No, I never would have imagined
anybody
rolling up in that. But having seen it now, I can’t imagine you driving anything else.”

It makes me inordinately happy to hear the term
mint condition
, because my granddad and I worked my last three years of high school and part of my freshman year of college on that car. The paint job was something I was able to afford only after taking on a side gig designing the packaging for a dog food company. That cherry-red paint was purchased with the proceeds from my job with the Barkery. I had them add a small black paw print to the corner of the driver’s side door for good luck. Even if Liam doesn’t understand my style, I think he at least appreciates it.

“Thanks.”

He shakes off the thank-you with a smirk.

“It wasn’t a compliment per se.”

“Sure it . . .”

The sound of my voice trailing off bounces off the walls and echoes back through the cavernous room. The space is massive—at first glance I’d guess seven or eight thousand square feet. The walls are stripped bare, the floor is dirty, cracked cement, and the entire place smells just slightly of mildew. But the ceiling . . . Gods, the ceiling is
incredible
.

It features vaulted white wood in a bowstring-truss style and skylights that let the afternoon sun spill in, lighting up the entire space. It’s gorgeous; I’m enraptured. And just like every other time, a switch is flipped. It’s like taking a filter and laying it over the top of a picture. The look of everything changes and comes into focus. In an instant, I don’t see how it looks; I see how it
should
look.

Brick, tile, glass, pendant lights, greenery, raw wood grain, a bar that runs from one side of the room to the other. It’s going to be gorgeous!

I blink and the bartender in my mind morphs into the man of my dreams. Liam’s curiosity is evident in every line of his face.

“How long was I out of it?”

I fight the urge to pop my knuckles while he considers me. I can only imagine what I just looked like.

“Ten minutes, maybe more. It’s cool, though. I took a phone call and answered a couple of emails.”

My fingers itch with awkwardness, and I wiggle them for lack of anything better to do. I really need to figure out a sexier nervous tic. Heroines in books are always biting their lip; maybe I should try that too.

“Sorry, zoning out like that tends to happen on a new project. I think it’s sort of a family trait.”

His brow furrows.

“Why are you chewing on your lip like that?”

My top lip springs free from my teeth with an audible pop.

“Um, I’m looking for a new nervous tic? I’m considering lip biting.”

The smallest smile plays across his face.

“Out of curiosity, what was the old nervous tic?”

My sigh is resigned. I hold up my hands like a magician and proceed to pop each knuckle in the same pattern I’ve done it in all my life. Index, middle, ring, and pinky knuckles and then a double thumbs-up, before bending my thumbs for one last pop. I started doing that last one after a year of clarinet in the seventh grade.

He winces.

“I
know
. That’s why I was trying to find an alternative.” I bite my lip again. “How does this look?”

His pained expression is almost comical.

“How does it feel?”

I try it again a few times.

“It feels like an English bulldog trying to gnaw off the top half of its face.”

His bark of laughter is loud in the empty space.

“Yep, that’s exactly how it looks. For the record, I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to bite your bottom lip—and just on one side,” he adds almost as an afterthought.

“Noted.”

When I realize how ridiculous this conversation is, I grin. I love that I’ve encouraged him to participate in the ridiculous with me.

He clears his throat.

“So, what do you imagine for the space?”

I spin away from him to look at it again.

“You’re still dead set on the vegan Latin fusion thing?” I wrinkle my brow. Even the
words
taste gross. I can’t imagine what the food will be like.


Upscale
organic vegan Latin cuisine, yes.”

I nod, my eyes stopping at the skylights again.

“OK. I’m thinking Spain. But, like, Spain as described by Gabriel García Márquez, and it has a baby with an Ian Schrager hotel.”

I spin back around to face him.

“Do you see what I mean?”

His phone rings again. He doesn’t even glance to see who it is before silencing it. For once he doesn’t make a smart-aleck comment or tease me. He actually looks like he’s genuinely trying to see what I see in the room. Finally he shakes his head.

“I know the definition of each of those words; I just don’t have any idea what you mean when you use them together to describe a restaurant.”

I push a mass of blue-tipped hair out of my face and walk over to stand next to him. My hair is basically a physical manifestation of my mood at any given time. When I’m designing, it tends to get just as excited as I am.

“OK, let’s start from the bottom and work our way up.” I point out the busted concrete below our feet. “For the floor I’d suggest—wait, what’s the budget?”

“Extensive.”

I grin.

“My favorite kind.” I tap the floor with the tip of my toe. “I’d start with a reclaimed wood then. We’d stain with something really light, but the natural color of the individual planks would look like a rich tapestry, juxtaposed with the white ceiling. I’d set the bar to run along the entire wall there. Gods know people are going to need a cocktail when they realize they’ve wandered into a place that only serves vegan food. The bar façade could almost be a statement piece unto itself—Mexican tile or possibly Moroccan.” I considered it for a moment. “But a bold pattern for sure. Black and white, maybe? I know Márquez was Colombian, by the way. When I mention him on Spanish vacation, I just mean the style and flair of Barcelona but brushed by the vintage elegance in one of his books. You with me?”

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