***For readers 18 and up***
YOUNG AND SCAMBITIOUS: LOVE, LIES, LARCENY
Who is Elizabeth Madrid, exactly? She’s Manila’s latest It Girl—stylish, staple of the club scene, new best friend of famous-for-being-famous Chrysalis Magnolia. She’s also a jewelry clan heiress, a former model, an Ivy Leaguer… except no one actually knew of her until last year. Shouldn’t her new society friends be more suspicious? Especially “BFF” Chrysalis, who reportedly already lost an expensive ring to a friend who turned out to be a thief?
She saw him when she wandered over to the general fiction floor, because she usually picked up a mystery or thriller to dip into between the research. He was wearing the strangest shade of rusty red for a shirt, paired with ridiculous cargo shorts that made her notice his strong calves. Her eye sort of moved up from there, over to his profile, up to his head of dark hair, just long enough for the curls to start coming in. She leaned a little closer to the stacks and allowed her gaze to linger a little longer on his eye, the clean curve of his jaw.
And then he turned toward her completely and she quickly turned away.
Yeah, that was stealthy, she thought, and in her mind she gave herself a swift kick.
He made his selection and then left the stacks, passing directly behind her.
Jane sighed. He was probably over six feet tall. She was five-eight herself, couldn’t help noticing height when she looked at guys. But she knew what it was that made her really look. That thing about him.
He looked Asian but not quite, not enough to be clearly labeled from one country or another based on the stereotypes. Which meant, as she knew, that he fell under another one entirely. The half-something, like her. She actually found that fascinating, not surprisingly because of her own history with it.
It wasn’t a crime, to look. She did that all the time, “on the job” or not. Looking was as innocent as ogling a magazine cover boy. Jane admired, and then assessed, and then moved on her merry way.
That night, the merry way happened to be toward a quaint organic/vegan cafe a few blocks from the library. She walked all the way, enjoying the night air and that for once she was appropriately dressed for the tropical weather: nondescript white tee, a lovely print skirt that came down just to her knees, canvas walking shoes.
There was a glass case of vegan desserts and she was about to choose a strawberry cake when a flash of odd rusty red reflected in the glass and she nearly jumped.
He was expecting this reaction and motioned for her to join him at his outdoor table, a small and round one that didn’t match any of the other tables outside. None of the tables or chairs matched. It was that kind of place.
“Why are you following me?” he said, smiling, but not really joking.
His accent was vaguely American, vaguely New England, which revealed certain things about him at least in her mind. If that was his actual accent, because it seemed like he was neutralizing.
Just like she was.
“How would I know that you’d be craving vegan cake after a book?” she teased.
“No one does that,” he answered. “Except you and me, apparently.”
They did this for about an hour. They talked about the library, the books they looked at, the awesome building, the well-intentioned cafe. He was a tourist, which explained the cargo shorts, spending a week in the city before heading back home.
“Home where?” she asked, innocently.
“Graduate school,” he said, not answering the question. He did the same to a bunch of other questions that would have pinned him down to a region, a country, a city, an age. He looked older than her, but not by much. Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, tops.
Jane was, of course, lying through all of it too. Suddenly she was a recent college grad (which she would have been in June last year if she had stayed), enjoying a month of idle travel before settling down to find a job.
“A job where?” he asked.
“In a hotel, or something,” was her non-answer.
So it was actually just like a date, which was a scam of another sort. Jane was suddenly a sweet and smiley person, who said “yes please” when offered coffee. She smoothed down her skirt sweetly, not suggestively, when he asked about her day and complimented her fresh look despite the humidity.
He was a handsome scholarly type just passing through, in this part of the world to “visit a friend,” and “tour campuses,” his knees not at all intentionally brushing against hers under the table.
All the words were meaningless to her. Jane had learned not to trust them anyway, so instead she kept track of the passing of time. His coffee cup drained down to a tiny puddle. Her slice of cake went from a thick wedge to a tiny rectangle that she continued to poke without actually consuming. The occupants of the four surrounding tables began to change.
They talked about music, books, movies, and current events. She made up band names and authors on the spot when he asked for recommendations, playing off the slightly bohemian vibe of her skirt and giving him what he possibly expected. He looked interested, not guessing she was playing him, or maybe just too polite to say so.
“…boring, the pace was all wrong. I normally like my thrillers with more cliffhangers,” he was saying.
“Ugh, cliffhangers,” she said, figuring that the college student would think that. “Cliffhangers are manipulative.”
“Who does it manipulate?”
“Me. The general public. People who can’t help but turn the page even when they don’t care about the characters anymore.”
“I like it when a book knows my weakness,” he said. “I happen to like turning a page against my will.”
Were they talking about books? Jane pretended she didn’t just think that.
She also paid attention to how his body moved. And when she did, she had a hard time believing that he was in grad school, studying and touring. When did he have time to work on those shoulders? Did typing and reading produce those forearms? And why, unlike other grad school students she’d had the privilege of sitting at a table with for a night of lying, did he ask so much about her? And not go on and on about his fascinating field of study? Why did his hair look like it had product, on a random day?
Briefly she wondered if it was a trap, if Margaux was somehow testing her. But she seriously doubted that Margaux had access to this guy, all smooth and scholarly sounding, and would still hunt Jane down for “looking rich.”
Don’t be crazy, Jane told herself. It was a big city, a tourist hub. People came and went by the thousands.
“Walk me to my hotel,” she said.
“It’s the gentlemanly thing to do,” he said.
Mina V. Esguerra writes contemporary romance, young adult, and new adult novellas. Her young adult/fantasy trilogy Interim Goddess of Love is a college love story featuring gods from Philippine mythology. Her contemporary romance novella Fairy Tale Fail won the 2012 Filipino Readers’ Choice award for Chick Lit. Through her blog Publishing in Pajamas (minavesguerra.com), she documents her experiments in e-publishing.
When not writing romance, she is president of communications firm Bronze Age Media, development communication consultant, indie publisher, professional editor, wife, and mother. She created the workshop series “Author at Once” and #romanceclass for writers and publishers.
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