A clash of fate brings a jewelry heiress and a criminal together in an escape through the jungle. Lost, scared and a little turned on, sparks fly when Jolie gets a taste of Kai’s wild side.
Can their passion withstand the trouble that finds Kai at every turn?
It would have been the perfect Instagram shot if it weren’t for a naked Santa Claus prancing in the waves. Jolie waited patiently in tree pose as the nude gentleman behind her lumbered his way into the ocean. His dimply butt cheeks clenched with each stride into the icy Pacific.
Jolie’s friend stifled her giggle behind the tripod.
“Can you change the angle to get him out of the frame?” Jolie said, her teeth chattering. “It’s freaking freezing out here.”
“Then why are you topless?” Nora said, readjusting the camera.
“Because this is art,” Jolie said with a scoff. “And it’ll get me a lot more followers.”
“Do you really need more? Aren’t you up to a hundred and fifty thousand or something?”
Jolie rolled her eyes. “I guess it’s less about getting more followers. I wouldn’t mind showing Haiku Swim what they’re missing by backing out on me.”
Haiku Swim wasn’t the only brand that had bailed unexpectedly lately, but that one hurt the most. Jolie had been working with the swimwear company for over a year. For no reason at all, they had canceled their contract. Jolie needed new branding partners soon, or she would be out of business.
Nora fiddled with the tripod. “I can adjust the camera, but we would lose the Golden Gate Bridge.”
“Fine, but take it quickly. The lighting is just right, and I need the perfect shot.”
Nora cleared her throat. “Um, Jolie? Your nipple is showing.”
“Crap.” Jolie repositioned her arms, her hands in prayer position in front of her sternum.
“Got it,” Nora said triumphantly.
Jolie came out of the position and jogged to the camera. “Let me see,” she said, pressing her Playback button.
The sun had just peeked over the horizon, creating a glow on her golden skin. The calming lavender sky hung behind decadent hills of green and crimson. The water sparkled under the newly born sun.
Jolie let out a soft breath of air. “Oh my God, it’s perfect. I think this picture might have just saved my blog.”
“Oh, come on.” Nora gave her a nudge. “It can’t be that bad.”
Jolie shimmied into her sports bra, then pulled on her T-shirt and fleece jacket, grateful for the residual warmth that lingered inside the fabric. “My agent hasn’t booked me a modeling gig in months. Months. I’ve had two brands end their contracts without renewing. I’m telling you, I’m washed up. I’m old.”
Nora perched her knuckles on her hips. “Thirty-two is not old.”
“Maybe I’m not old, but I must be losing my edge.” Jolie unclicked the camera from the tripod. “I need a new angle. Something to attract new followers.”
Nora shielded her face with her hand as the sun peeked over the Golden Gate Bridge, and she pointed to the burly Santa still skipping in the waves. “You mean adjusting your angle to add Sir Naked Frolics-a-Lot to your shot?”
Jolie squinted at the jiggling belly. The man was splashing in the waves like a child. “Something tells me he wouldn’t mind, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I need something fresh in my newsfeed. Something that can compete with the waiflike twentysomething Instagram princesses with their perky boobs and pouty lips.”
Nora chuckled. “You’ve got perky boobs and pouty lips, you brat.”
Jolie rolled up her yoga mat and tucked it under her arm. “Maybe people are tired of my shtick.”
“Yeah, my shtick. My tattooed-badass-yogi-in-San-Francisco shtick.”
Nora shrugged. “For what it’s worth, I still think you’re cool.”
Jolie put her arm around Nora’s shoulders and squeezed her tight. “Thanks, Nora, but no offense, next to you, anyone can look cool.”
“Hey!” Nora elbowed Jolie in the ribs.
“Ow. You know I’m just kidding,” Jolie said, squeezing Nora closer to her chest and planting a big sloppy kiss on her cheek. “Seriously though. Thanks for helping me with the pictures today. You’re a lifesaver.”
“My pleasure,” Nora said, wrapping her arm around Jolie’s neck. “Nothing like a perky peep show before I head to the office.”
Jolie laughed at that. Nora was definitely the more conservative one of the two. Thankfully, she never turned her nose up or made Jolie feel bad about her racy blog posts or imposed conditions or judgment. She was the best of friends.
Together, they shuffled through the cold sand, stepping over sand dollars and seaweed.
“I don’t know how you do it,” Jolie said.
“Do what?” Nora said, trying to fix her bangs despite the wind blowing them out of place.
“I don’t know how you go into an office every day. You’re an editor and a writer. You can work wherever you want.”
Nora shrugged. “I like my office. I can get so much more work done there than at home.”
Jolie stuck out her tongue. “Yuck.” She couldn’t imagine anything worse, tied to an office desk like a caged animal only to be released at dinnertime. “I’d rather chew off my right arm than work a nine-to-five job.”
“Then it’s a good thing you don’t have to.”
They reached the pavement of the parking lot, and Jolie felt the coarse gravel under her feet. Slipping on her flip-flop sandals, she scuffled back to her car.
Two eyes stared at her from underneath the front tire. A black kitten appeared, maybe less than a year old.
“Who’s this little one?” Jolie cooed. “Nora, look.”
Nora threw her bag in her car and shuffled over to see. “Oh my gosh, of course a stray cat would be under your car. You’re like a magnet for homeless animals.”
“It’s so cute!” Jolie reached out to it. “No collar. No tags.” The cat sniffed Jolie’s fingertip and rubbed its cheek against it. “He likes me.”
“Of course it likes you. Every stray animal in the city seems to like you. You’ve got a reputation.”
Jolie chuckled. Petting the black fur of the kitten, she wondered if he was homeless or if he was just lost. “Maybe I’ll take him home with me for now and see if I can connect him to his owner.”
“Sucker.” Nora smiled.
She was right. Jolie was a sucker for animals, especially ones without a proper home. Jolie needed to help him find one, or she would keep him herself.
The cat jumped into Jolie’s lap, purring in her arms. His tiny little claws poked through her yoga pants. Her heart swelled with joy, and she clutched the sweet little creature in her arms. “It’s settled then. I’ll take it to the vet on my way home.”
“Don’t you have a business to save?”
“Yes, but this is an emergency,” Jolie said, letting the kitten sniff her nose. His scratchy tongue licked the tip of her chin. “That tickles, little guy.”
“You and your animals,” Nora said, shaking her head.
She decided to call him Franklin. The vet couldn’t find a chip, but Franklin appeared to be healthy and safe for her to bring home after a few immunizations. Jolie posted a picture of Franklin on her neighborhood app with “Lost kitty needs his owner” and hoped she could reunite them before it was too late. She was already starting to fall in love.
Jolie tossed her camera bag over her shoulder and scooped Franklin up in her arms. “You’re going to like it here,” Jolie said, walking up the stoop. The jangling of her keys sent the inside of her apartment into a frenzy. Barks and yips emerged from behind the door.
“Hey, guys! Look who I’ve brought home.” Franklin clawed up her shirt, scratching at her neck. “Don’t be scared, Franklin. Let me introduce you to the clan.”
Jolie stepped over the yipping dogs and through the hallway. “This is Frido,” Jolie said, pointing to the shih tzu, who was yipping the loudest. Jolie reached into the bowl on the counter and grabbed a bone-shaped dog treat. “Frido is the feistiest one.”
Franklin still gripped her neck. His back arched. “It’s okay, honey,” she said, petting his fur.
“And this is Sneeker. The one with the snaggly teeth.” Jolie handed a dog treat to the white-haired Chihuahua, who scurried to the corner of the living room. He never liked to share.
“This is Duchess,” Jolie said, giving the corgi-dachshund mix a slightly larger bone treat. “She’s the mother of the troop.” Duchess was more interested in Franklin than the dog treat, wagging her tail as if she were a puppy again.
After a while, Franklin relaxed, lying on Jolie’s chest in the crook of her neck.
“There you go. Just get comfortable. I’ll introduce you to Samuel the tabby cat later. He’s probably asleep on my pillow.”
It took several rounds of sniffing, each dog taking their turn, smelling Franklin’s nose and then his butt, until finally Franklin began to purr. He leaped onto the top of the couch and settled into a perched position as the dogs went about their normal business. Frido and Sneeker fought over a rope toy while Duchess plopped her thick tummy onto the floor near the balcony window.
All was settled for now. Time to get back to work. Jolie pulled out her camera and plugged it into her laptop. Sitting cross-legged on her couch, she petted Franklin while the pictures loaded. “Let’s see if we got what we needed.”
Jolie opened her uploaded pictures and clicked through.
Nope. That one didn’t have the right composition. Next.
Absolutely not. The camera added ten pounds to the picture. Her cheeks looked like she was gathering nuts for winter. Next.
The next wouldn’t work either. Next.
Jolie squinted at the image on her laptop screen. Too blurry. Next.
The golden image of her in tree pose appeared. There it is. That’s the one. The one that would most definitely get her noticed. The photo radiated with color and contrast. The tattoo along her collarbone was on full display, her forearms covering her breasts just enough to pass the Instagram guards. The turquoise ocean and dewy Marin Hills glittered in the background.
It was perfect. The sound of Franklin’s purr led Jolie to believe he agreed.
Jolie could almost hear the sound of her agent’s raspy voice now. I’m so sorry I’ve been MIA, but I saw your latest post, and it’s gorgeous! I booked you a photo shoot at Vogue. Pack your bags, sweetheart, you’re flying to New York.
A flutter in her stomach appeared as she uploaded the photo to Instagram. This was it. The photo that would put her back on the map.
She set the caption:
Just another day at the office. #SanFranciscoyogi #yogabuff #jolieboulardyoga #model #bakerbeach #tattooedforlife
Pleased with herself, she popped up from her couch and fixed a green smoothie. Kale, frozen bananas, blueberries, almond butter, and soy milk. She resisted the urge to look at her post to see how many likes she had received in the first couple of minutes.
She chewed on her straw, negotiating with herself to wait at least ten minutes.
Jolie poked at the kale bits lodged between her two front teeth with her tongue, then a tap-tap-tap peeled her away from her own thoughts. The dogs went into a frenzy, yipping and barking, alerting her that an intruder was at the door.
Who could it be? It was too early for the mailman, and the mailman never came upstairs.
Jolie peered through the peephole and cocked her head to the side.
“Gregg?” Jolie said, opening the door for her landlord. “What brings you here?”
Gregg had hunched shoulders and a thin frame. He would have been taller than Jolie if he stood up straight, but instead he avoided eye contact and looked down at her feet. “I… uh…” He swallowed. His Adam’s apple bobbed so low she thought it would fall to his stomach.
He held a check in his hand, and Jolie recognized her signature.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Ms. Boulard, but your check didn’t go through this month.”
“Didn’t go through? That’s so weird.” Jolie grabbed the check from his tremoring hand and scanned it.
“The bank charged me thirty dollars for trying to cash it,” Gregg said, his voice more dry than when he first spoke. “Insufficient funds, they said.”
Jolie looked up through her eyelashes. His balding head had formed little beads of sweat on the verge of sliding down his pasty skin.
“I’m so sorry about that. I can write you another check.”
“You may want to call your bank first. I don’t want to be charged again.”
Jolie’s brow furrowed. “Of course. I’ll call them right now and get this whole thing figured out.”
“Thank you,” Gregg said, cowering away.
“I’ll also pay the extra thirty dollars for the trouble,” Jolie said.
“It’s no problem,” he mumbled, not turning to look at Jolie. Pit stains seeped from his armpits, nearly connecting with the sweat stain on his back.
Poor guy. He had always been nervous, but today he was particularly anxious.
Jolie shut her front door softly and stared at her check. It was impossible to think she didn’t have any money in her bank account. Being an heiress to a jewelry company had its perks. Money had never been an issue before. Her father had financially supported her for years—well, that is, until she’d cut him off about two years ago.
Tired of her father’s vise grip on her life, she had told her father she wanted to live on her own, to support herself with her own income. She needed to prove her independence so she could free herself from the wrath that came down with every bikini post online.
It was her life. Not her father’s. If he didn’t approve of how she chose to support herself, then he could keep his money. Her freedom was more important anyway.
Jolie pried her laptop open and strained her memory for her bank’s username and password. Why hadn’t she saved them on her computer? When was the last time she checked her account? She couldn’t even remember which email address she used.
Her pulse quickened at the thought there might be an actual problem. She lurched toward her phone and dialed her father’s assistant. Cindy handled all of Jolie’s and her father’s accounts.
“Hi, Cindy?” Jolie said. “I can’t remember my username and password to my bank account. Do you have it?”
“Give me one minute and I’ll find it for you, dear.”
Jolie put the trumpet jazz music on speaker while she unsteadily walked toward the kitchen to grab her smoothie. Her teeth ground down on the straw between sips.
Franklin was exploring the kitchen countertop, and Jolie shooed him away. “Not on the counter please.”
The phone clicked on, and Jolie twitched.
“Jolie, you there?” Cindy’s sixty-year-old voice quivered.
“Yes, I’m here.”
“I’ve pulled up your account, and it looks like you’ve got a balance of one thousand and eight hundred dollars.”
Jolie couldn’t have heard that right. “I’m sorry, you said one hundred thousand and eight, right?”
“No, I said one thousand.”
Jolie’s vision darkened around the edges, like she was watching a vintage film of her own life. Cindy was saying something through the speaker, but Jolie could only hear “one thousand” playing over and over in her head.
One thousand and eight hundred dollars wasn’t enough to cover her next month’s rent. She was out of money.
“Jolie, did you hear me?” Cindy asked.
Jolie snapped back to real time. “No, I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“Have you been depositing your income into another account, dear?”
“Income?” Jolie cupped her hand over her mouth. Her brand partners. They had all pulled out. The money she was receiving from her blog advertisements must not have been enough to cover her expenses. She knew it had been on the decline, but…
“Oh, Jolie.” Cindy’s grandma-like tone pierced through Jolie’s heart. Cindy knew it too. She was broke.
“It shows you have a pending payment of two thousand dollars. Maybe you can still cancel it before it’s too late.”
A sour film crept around the sides of her tongue, the same taste she would get just before she threw up.
That money was for her mother, who flitted into Jolie’s life whenever she was desperate for money and right back out again when she had gotten her check. Jolie never would have thought a couple thousand dollars here and there would put her in jeopardy.
“I can’t cancel that.”
“Well, honey, I don’t know what to say.”
The kale in her stomach churned. “Please don’t tell my dad,” Jolie said, her voice cracking. “I will tell him myself.”
Her head was swirling. Her chest burned. Her fingers trembled as they hovered over the phone.
“Your secret is safe with me.”
“Thanks,” Jolie said weakly.
“Maybe the two of you can go out to dinner tonight. I can reschedule his conference meeting with China. Would you like me to do that?”
Jolie squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t want to see her father. Not like this. He would call her irresponsible and immature. He was always looking for an excuse to tell her how much of a disappointment she was for not coming to work for him.
But she didn’t have a choice. She was desperate.
Jolie swallowed. “Yes, please. Tonight works.”
“I’ll send you over the details shortly. Good luck, honey.”
Jolie clicked the Speaker button and flopped back on her couch. She sank into the sofa and wallowed in despair.
Her father would make her feel every ounce of disgrace that he could pour out. It would be a bloodbath of shame and fatherly advice.
Taking a deep breath, she stood up and floated to her kitchenette, pulling out a bottle of Jim Beam. Perhaps a little whiskey would soften the blows she was about to endure.
Jolie poured herself a full glass and sipped away the hours, planning how to ask her dad for money without sounding desperate. She didn’t need to give him another opportunity to control her any more than he already was.
The restaurant was like her father, pretentious and dripping with money. Silicon Valley business people hunched over tiny plates, tea lights reflecting off their trendy square-shaped eyeglasses.
Jolie drifted down the aisle, bobbing through hushed tones and clinking glasses, her head still in a whiskey fog. Her knees were like jelly as she followed the stiff-spined hostess to the booth in the far back.
Jolie’s father was studying the wine list through wire-rimmed spectacles when he looked up. “I see you forgot your cardigan again.”
Jolie looked down at her tattoos and let out a muted puff of air.
Great, he was already in a bad mood. Normally, this would be the moment she would snap back with a comment about how nobody cared what she looked like. She was an adult, and she could wear whatever she wanted. But she held her tongue.
“Good to see you too, Dad.”
He returned to his wine list with his brows pinched together. “You know how I feel about the”—he waved his plastic menu at her cleavage, shaking his head—“in front of all these people.”
It wasn’t that much cleavage.
Jolie looked down. Maybe it was a little cleavage.
Jolie picked up her menu as a shield from her father’s icy glare. Staring at the fuzzy swirl of French words, she blinked a few times until they came into focus.
The waiter arrived, slicing through the tension and began listing their specials for the evening. The amount of effort and care the server put into each syllable of the poulet vallée d’auge was kind of sweet. Jolie gave him an encouraging smile as he went on.
“Can we please get a bottle of the 2009 Chateau Leoville Poyferre?” her father said, cutting the waiter off before he could finish the last syllable of boeuf bourguignon. “She’ll have the steak tartar, and I’ll have the filet mignon, medium rare, s’il vous plaît.”
Jolie glowered at her father. She hated when he was rude to the staff and hated it even more when he ordered her dinner for her as if she were a child.
Her dad ignored Jolie’s glare and cleared his throat. “I have good news.”
Jolie handed the waiter her menu and gave him an apologetic smile for her father’s rude behavior.
“We have an opening in our marketing department. It’s a communications role focused on social media. It’s basically what you do now, but without your”—he waved at her chest again, still unable to say the word “chest” or “boobs”—“without your… girl parts on display for everyone to see.”
Jolie summoned all her self-control to not roll her eyes. “About that,” she said, breathing in sharply. “I was thinking of a new angle for my website.”
Her father frowned. “Did you hear what I just said?”
“I did. I get that you want me to work for you, but I don’t want to work for a jewelry company. I’m sorry. I want to do my own thing.”
“By prancing around in your bikini all over town, with your tattoos and your…”
“They’re called boobs, Dad.”
The waiter was setting down their wineglasses, and his eyes widened.
“Sorry,” Jolie said under her breath.
The waiter let out a small cough, pulling out a wine opener and pretending like he hadn’t just cut into an awkward debate. Jolie and her father stared at each other while the server poured their wine.
“I think you’re lost, Jolie,” her father said. “You need direction and structure.”
The back of Jolie’s neck warmed, and she waited for the end of the glugging sound of wine before speaking up again. “Dad, I appreciate you trying to help me, but what you’re offering me is a life sentence. I can’t work there.”
“I’m offering you a respectable job. One that will give you a steady wage. Insurance. Security.”
“But I don’t want those things. I want freedom. To come and go as I please. To work on my own terms. To create content that inspires people.”
Jolie’s father closed his eyes, taking a sip from his wine as if he was blocking out her words. “It’s time to start acting like an adult. You’re thirty-two years old.”
Jolie sipped from her ice water, watching her father swish the wine around in his mouth. After one wine tasting class, he had to make a big show of it every time they were out. She tempered her irritation by focusing on the ice crunching between her teeth.
Her plans of asking her father for money faded away with every passing moment. How could she reject her father’s job proposal in one breath, then ask for money in the next?
She needed to negotiate. Speak his language. Find a way his loan would benefit him.
Taking a sip of wine, she let the charcoal-like aftertaste sit on her tongue as an idea formed in her head. “What if we could make a deal?” Jolie said slowly.
His eyebrow raised.
Jolie picked a piece of bread from the table and placed it in her mouth. “I want to give my business one last try. I need something to recharge my online presence to attract new brands.”
Her father narrowed his eyes on her.
“If I fail, I’ll come work for you. I’ll put on a long-sleeved blouse and slacks if I have to.”
“What’s the catch?” her father asked, swirling around the wine in his glass.
As if he didn’t know—he knew what the catch was, or so it seemed as he taunted her with the smug look he got when he had the upper hand. And he always had the upper hand.
Jolie swallowed, bracing herself for what she was about to propose. “I just need a loan to update my image. To rebrand.”
Her father sat stiffly in his chair. “How much cash are we talking about?”
Jolie bit her lip. “A hundred grand?” Although she wasn’t quite sure. Managing money hadn’t really been her forte. It seemed like a lot though.
Her father sucked in his breath and narrowed his eyes.
“You want me to give you one hundred thousand to help you populate your social media? What about all the money I’ve given you over the years? Where did it go?”
Jolie tore away from her father’s glare and focused on the tiny wooden grooves of the restaurant table. The truth was too difficult to say out loud.
“I lost some of my big branding partners recently, and my agent hasn’t booked any modeling gigs in a long while.”
“That’s a lot of money you pissed down the drain, Jolie.”
She couldn’t look him in the eye and took another sip of cold water to help distract her from the shame of begging for money.
Her father set down his wineglass and crossed his arms. He shook his head at her, the way he did when she was young and in trouble. “How much has your mother taken?”
“Your mother. How much has she been taking from you?”
Jolie froze. She had no idea he even knew that was happening. Could her mother have said something to him? No, that’s impossible. She wouldn’t have wasted a single breath talking to this man.
“She has nothing to do with it,” Jolie said, ignoring the fact that wasn’t entirely true. “I’ll admit I’ve made mistakes with how I’ve managed that money, but I’ve learned from them. I want to give my business one more shot.”
“Let’s say I loan you the one hundred thousand from your inheritance. Then what? How much time will you need to determine if you are able to live on your own without coming to me, begging for my money again?”
Jolie’s jaw dropped. “I’m not begging.” Okay, maybe she was a little bit. “Give me six months to turn my business around. If I’m not making enough money to cover my expenses in six months, then I’ll shut it down and come work for you. I’ll file papers or work in the mail room if I have to. Whatever job is available.”
Her father pursed his lips. “Do I have your word?”
It was like making a business deal with the devil. “Yes.”
“Then I’ll have Cindy draw up the paperwork tomorrow morning.”
Jolie shot back in surprise. “Paperwork? What paperwork?”
Jolie hit the table with her hands. “You don’t trust me?” Her voice raised an octave.
She eventually realized her plate of steak tartar was hovering by her arm, waiting for her to release the grip on the tablecloth. She apologized to the stunned waiter, again, and placed the white napkin in her lap.
“I want this in writing,” he said tersely. “And if you don’t come through your end of the bargain, your inheritance will be on the line.”
Jolie froze. “My inheritance?” The millions of dollars that came with being an heiress to an international jewelry company? That inheritance?
“You heard me,” he said with finality.
Jolie took a sip of water to soothe her dry mouth. The stakes were raised beyond Jolie’s imaginings. “I have to give this one last shot.”
“Six months then?”
Her father picked up his steak knife. “Deal.”
Jolie exhaled, both relieved and anxious at the same time.
“So what’s your new angle? How are you planning on rebranding yourself?”
“I’m not sure yet. My seven-day challenges seem to be popular. I might focus on something like that.”
Her father grunted. “It doesn’t involve you being half-naked, does it?”
Jolie rolled her eyes. “I’m still figuring it out, but maybe I could extend my seven-day challenges into something different. Something more… meaningful. I want to figure out a way to do something that could make this world a better place.”
Her father raised his eyebrows at that. “What do you mean?”
Jolie shrugged her shoulders, looking down at the plate of raw meat. She stared at the juicy pieces of cow as if they might have the answer.
Then it hit her. “Maybe I could try to become vegan or something like that. For the animals.”
Her father laughed. “Vegan?” He slapped his knee. “Now that’s funny. You could never be a vegan.” He took a bite from his severed piece of filet mignon and placed it on his tongue. “My daughter likes her meat too much.”
Jolie narrowed her eyes at her father. His skepticism lit a fire in her belly. Pushing the plate of steak tartar away, she looked him square in the eyes. “I may like meat, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it.”
“You’ll never make it.”
Jolie placed her napkin on the table. “Challenge accepted.”
There was a break in the rain. The clouds parted, and the Costa Rican heat barged into the funeral like an unwanted guest. A small crowd, possibly twenty people or so, stood around the hole in the ground.
Kai put his arm around his mother’s limp shoulders while the casket descended into the earth. The time had come to say their last goodbye.
His father’s death came as no surprise. His failing health had been at his side for years, like a loyal pet that never strayed far. Late nights, smoking cigars, drinking brandy, and hard days building his coffee roastery from the ground up had taken their toll.
He squeezed his mother tight, knowing how much his death was ripping her apart. His parents had been the perfect couple ever since Kai could remember, dancing in the kitchen, sneaking in kisses after dessert. A once-in-a-lifetime kind of love that most people only experienced in movies or books. Kai feared his mother would never be the same after losing the love of her life.
“He was a good man.” The words reverberated in Kai’s head, repeated by almost every neighbor or employee who attended the funeral that day.
“I assume you’ll be taking over the family business?” an older gentleman asked in Spanish, firmly shaking Kai’s hand. Kai recognized him. One of many friends his father had made while living in Costa Rica.
“Raffi, my brother, will take over,” Kai replied in Spanish, acknowledging his older brother standing next to him. “But I’ll stay back and help for a little while.”
Raffi shifted on his feet and shook the man’s hand. “The smart one here is taking a break from his big-shot finance gig and is going to help me until we hire an office manager.” Raffi grabbed Kai’s shoulders, giving him a shake. “I’ve got some big ideas for the business. We’ll see if little brother tells me if I can afford them.”
A smile appeared on the man’s face. “I see the business will be in good hands. I’m sorry about your father.”
Kai leveled his eyes at Raffi as the man walked off. “What ideas?” Kai said, switching back to English. “Did Pop know about them?”
“Don’t you worry that pretty little face.” Raffi grabbed Kai’s cheek between his fingers. “I’ll run them by you later.”
Kai brushed off Raffi’s hand. “Don’t patronize me. I’m only here to help.”
“And we’re all so glad you can take the time out of your perfect life to make sure I don’t mess everything up.” Raffi gave one more solid pat on Kai’s back before turning on his heel.
Kai let hot air out through his nose as he watched Raffi walk toward a group of Ma’s friends, greeting them with his arms open wide.
Kai narrowed his eyes on him. Wrangling down Raffi’s crazy plans for their father’s business was going to be a challenge, but he would have to worry about that later. His mother and his younger brother were still standing by the coffin together, clutching each other in their arms.
“Are you doing okay?” Kai asked, putting his arm around Noah’s broad shoulders.
Noah gave Kai a tight-lipped smile, never taking his eyes off the casket covered in flowers. His eyes glistened with unshed tears while Ma clutched his waist tightly, sniffing into a tissue.
“I was just telling Ma that I’ve decided to stay back and help with the business,” Noah said.
“You can’t do that, Noah. You’ve been putting college off too long now. It’s your time to do what’s right for you,” Kai said, his eyebrows pinching together.
“I know, but Ma needs me to stay.”
Ma looked up at Kai with her puffy round eyes. “I tried to tell him, but he wouldn’t listen,” she said, her thick German accent muffled by the tightness in her throat.
“You don’t need to be a hero anymore. You’ve done your part, helping Pop and his business for what… five years now?” Kai said.
“Don’t worry. My boss approved my sabbatical, so I’ll be here for a while. Raffi will be here too. We’ve got it taken care of.”
“You’re okay with Raffi running the business on his own?” Noah whispered, looking over his shoulder.
“He’ll do just fine,” Kai said, following Noah’s gaze to their older brother, who was shaking hands with a neighbor.
Who was Kai kidding? Raffi was a wild card. He always had been unpredictable.
Kai wasn’t sure Raffi could run the business on his own, but he would soon find out. He had taken a few months of leave to help stabilize the business.
“Pop put everything they had into starting up that company,” Noah said. “If it fails, Ma won’t have a retirement plan.”
Kai gripped the lighter in his pocket. “Is that true? Ma?”
Ma nodded, blowing her nose into her tissue. “He put all our savings in that business. It’s why he worked so hard all the time.”
“Dammit,” Kai said, promptly getting a swat to the chest.
“Language!” Ma hissed.
The business was in worse shape than he thought. He only had a few months before he would need to get back to his job and his life in San José. Uncertainty seeped into his racing thoughts. Would he be able to salvage the business before his brother runs it into the ground?
“You see? I can’t go now,” Noah said. “Maybe I’ll reapply next year. I just want to make sure the business runs smoothly. For Ma’s sake.”
Kai pulled out the lighter in his hands and flicked it on. He stared at the flame as if it could give him the confidence that everything would turn out all right, just like his father used to do.
Two weeks later…
The stack of papers in his father’s inbox mocked him. A physical inbox. Kai knew nothing of the inner workings of his father’s business, and to make matters worse, the man had never trusted the computer. Everything was written by hand.
His accounting and balance sheets and receipts for all his investments were hidden in unorganized piles everywhere. There was no logical method or pattern to his ledgers. It would take weeks to decode the mess his father left behind.
A splitting headache grew from the back of his head and around his skull.
The rattle of the garage door shook the walls, and Kai looked through the window of the main office. The warehouse was packed with coffee beans in burlap bags ready to be roasted. Raffi pulled up in their company van and parked next to Kai’s truck.
Raffi stepped out of the van, his face twisted, shadowed by the overhanging light. He looked at Kai but didn’t seem to see him.
“Raff, are you okay?” Kai said.
Raffi’s lip quivered, his hands shaking at his sides. He didn’t answer.
“Raffi?” Kai padded toward him cautiously. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost. What’s going on?”
Raff’s mouth opened and shut, but nothing came out.
Kai had never seen Raffi so distraught. He stood there, paralyzed and shaking, as if he were in shock.
Kai clamped his hands on Raffi’s shoulders and tried catching his gaze. “Look at me.”
Raffi’s eyes shifted, returning to focus.
“I…,” he stammered. “I…”
“Let’s go sit down,” Kai said, sliding his hand to the back of Raffi’s shoulder. He began to lead him toward the office when Victor, one of their employees, approached the van, Noah following behind.
Raffi tore himself from Kai’s arm and yelled in Spanish, “Get out of there!”
Kai shot back in surprise. Victor froze, slinging back his hands away from the van as if it were on fire.
“Raff, what the hell, man? Victor is only trying to help.”
“Get him out of here,” Raffi growled in English. “All of them, including Noah.”
Kai looked at Victor and Noah’s stunned faces as Raffi’s words echoed off the warehouse walls.
“Um,” Kai said, shrugging his shoulders. He looked at the clock on the wall, and it was near closing time. “Victor, feel free to take off early,” he said in Spanish. “I’ll clock out for you at six.”
Victor nodded, scurrying out the warehouse, occasionally looking over his shoulder toward Raffi, who was still standing there, trembling.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Noah said, stalking over. “What the hell is going on?”
“Is anyone else here?” Raffi said.
Kai shook his head. “Franco left an hour ago, and you sure as hell scared the crap out of Victor. What’s the matter with you?”
Raffi rubbed his cheeks with his hands. “I need to sit down,” he said. Slumping into one of the chairs in their break room area, he rested his head into his hands.
Kai and Noah exchanged worried glances. Noah was probably thinking what Kai was thinking. What did Raffi get into now?
Raffi was always into trouble as a kid. His harebrained ideas never seemed to work out, including his most recent one: eloping with a stripper. It didn’t take long for him to figure out that was a disaster of a decision when she had to go back to work after their honeymoon. The Greene men were known to be the jealous type. Luckily, Kai was able to convince Raffi to annul their marriage before Trixie could get pregnant and Ma could throw a baby shower among Costa Rica’s finest strip-dancing crew.
“Shut the garage,” Raffi barked.
Noah did as he was told, and he and Kai both took a seat around the folding table.
“I’m in deep shit,” Raffi said. “I didn’t know where to go.”
“What happened?” Kai said.
Raffi dropped his hands from his face. His eyes looked more bloodshot than they did when he’d stepped out of the van. His hands shook as they fell into his lap. “I picked up a side gig. You know, to make a little extra cash.”
Kai cocked his head. That didn’t seem like such a big deal.
“I didn’t really know what I had signed up for exactly,” Raffi continued, “although I had my suspicions.”
“What are you talking about, Raff? Get to the point,” Noah said.
Raffi glared at Noah. “I was working for a guy that needed help with getting stuff delivered from one side of town to the other. It was a don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind of situation. Every now and then, I’d get a call from this guy Ricky. He’d give me a pickup and a drop-off location. It was easy to fit in our normal coffee deliveries, and the pay was really good.”
Kai felt his blood pressure rise. A sharp pain scratched at the inside of his stomach. He was sure it was an ulcer forming.
“Raffi,” Kai said through clenched teeth, “what did you get yourself into?”
“You don’t even know the half of it,” Raffi said, his face growing blotchier by the second. “I got a call last night, you know? No big deal. I picked up whatever loot they were stuffing in the van and took it to a warehouse on the north side of town. When I got there, I swear to God, it was a bloodbath.”
“Jesus Christ,” Noah said, running his hand through his wavy hair.
Kai’s ears were ringing. He watched as his older brother fell apart before his eyes. “There was blood everywhere,” Raffi said, taking a moment to swallow. “I didn’t know what to do, so I called Ricky, my guy, thinking he could help me, but it just rang and rang. No answer. That guy never went anywhere without his phone. Ever.”
“Do you think he’s dead too?” Kai said.
“I don’t know what to think,” Raffi said. “I don’t even know what’s in the van.”
“So you’re telling me that you got yourself involved in something obviously illegal, and you brought that crap here?” Kai said. “Are these killers going to be looking for you too?”
Raffi shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, his voice constricted. “I’m so sorry. I really fucked up.”
“Yeah, Raffi, I would say so,” Kai said curtly. “How could you be so reckless?”
Raffi shut his eyes. “I said I was sorry! What more do you want from me?”
“I want you to think, Raffi. For once! Think before you act. You’re supposed to be taking over Pop’s business, for God’s sake. It’s time to grow up,” Kai said, storming toward the van.
“What are you doing?” Raffi said.
“I’m going to see what’s in the van so I know what to tell the police,” Kai said.
“No. Kai. Please.” Raffi shot up from his chair.
Kai ignored his brother as he gripped the back handle and swung the door open. Stacks of green coffee bags were piled from floor to ceiling. Grabbing one of the bags from the top, he plopped it to the floor.
Noah and Raffi gathered around while Kai ripped the seam of the burlap sack. Green coffee beans spilled from the top, tumbling onto the cement floor at their feet. Kai pushed his hand through the beans until his fingertips landed on something smooth and firm.
The little boutique shop in Noe Valley was bustling with women flipping through racks of sale items. Jolie pulled out a floral maxi skirt and held it up next to the tank top. “Don’t these look great together?” She held the hanger up to her chin in front of the mirror. She knitted her eyebrows together and pulled out the tags. “Is this expensive?” Jolie asked, holding out the white tag to Nora.
“It depends on what your budget is.”
Jolie let out a sigh. She had never had a budget for clothing before. With one hundred thousand in the bank, she wasn’t really sure how long it would last.
“What’s wrong?” Nora asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re chewing on the string of your hoodie.”
“Am I?” Jolie spit out the soggy cord. It flopped down to her chest like a wet noodle.
“You haven’t gnawed at something like that since our final semester at Berkeley,” Nora said, putting her hands on Jolie’s shoulders. “What’s going on?”
Jolie admired the beautiful ensemble in her hands one last time and then hung it back on the rack. Times were different. She couldn’t shop the way she used to anymore.
“I think I just need a coffee or something. You want to head across the street?”
“Sure,” Nora said.
Jolie marched toward the exit, waving goodbye to the owner of the store. She stopped to admire the teardrop necklace that would have gone perfectly with the outfit she left behind but then shook off her instinct to pull out her credit card and marched across the street to the coffee shop like a good girl.
Jolie took a seat at the round table by the window while Nora finished placing her order at the counter. The sunshine seeped through the window and warmed Jolie’s face. People with shopping bags walked down the busy street. Dogs on leashes waited, tails wagging, for their owners to finish their brunch.
“Okay, something must be up,” Nora said, placing her foamy cappuccino on the table. “You never walk away from that store empty-handed.”
Jolie placed her coffee stir stick next to her cup, resisting the urge to put it between her teeth.
“You know how I told you my business is in a slump?” Jolie said, taking a sip of her soy milk coffee. “It turns out it’s much worse than I thought.”
Jolie released a large sigh, resting her head in her hands. She couldn’t make eye contact while she said it. “I’m out of money.”
Nora gasped. “No way! How did that happen? I thought your dad was giving you money.”
Jolie shook her head. “I cut him off years ago. I was tired of him telling me what to do all the time. I was doing fine on my own.”
Nora quietly took a sip of her cappuccino.
“I feel like such an idiot, you know?” Heat rose on Jolie’s face. “Like the rug was pulled out from under me and I’ve fallen on my ass.”
“You are not an idiot,” Nora said loyally. “You’re just in a rough patch.”
Jolie gazed out the window, wondering if this really was just a rough patch or if her plan at rebranding could actually work.
“Not to mention,” Nora continued, “you’ve been exceedingly generous with your money.”
“Nah,” Jolie said.
“Jolie.” Nora voice grew stern. “Half my wardrobe are gifts from you. Think about the money you spent as my maid of honor. Remember? The wedding shower? That trip to Bali? You paid for all that.”
Jolie hung her head low.
“And don’t get me started on the animals,” Nora added. “How many animals have you taken in now? Ten? Fifteen? The veterinary expenses alone would result in bankruptcy.”
“I only have five, thank you very much.”
“Either way,” Nora said. “What I’m saying is that you’re too generous. You’ve done so much for the population of San Francisco’s homeless animals, including myself.”
“You were not a homeless animal.”
“I sure was.” Nora smiled. “You helped me get on my feet then, Jolie. Now I want to help you.”
“I can’t take your money, Nora.”
“Nora, stop,” Jolie said, more firmly than she intended. Her nerves were sizzling. “I got myself into this mess. I’ll get myself out.”
Nora looked away, setting her gaze outside as if she were trying to think of a solution. Her finger tapped on her lower lip.
“I already asked my dad for a loan on my inheritance.”
“You didn’t.” Nora’s head snapped back to face Jolie. Concern pooled in her eyes.
“I did,” Jolie said. “We made a deal.”
“A contract, actually. He had me come into the office and sign freaking legal papers and everything.” Jolie looked into the creamy swirl of her coffee and found herself nibbling on that damn coffee stir stick. “If I can’t create a sustainable income in six months, then I’ll give it up and work for him.”
“No.” Nora’s mouth fell open. “Like, a real desk job?”
Jolie gave a nod.
“But you hate—”
“He’s giving me one last shot at working for myself. For that, I’m grateful. It just comes at a hefty price if I renege on our deal.”
“What happens then?” Nora’s eyes grew round.
“If I don’t adhere to our agreement, he’s taking me out of the will.”
“Oh yes, he would. It’s in writing. If I bail on our deal, the inheritance goes somewhere else.”
Nora cupped her hand over her gaping mouth.
“It’s a risk I’m willing to take.” Jolie brought the stir stick to her teeth again and bit down hard. “I’ve got to try one more time to make it on my own. I can’t stomach working for someone else—especially my father.”
“So how are you going to do it? How are you going to turn your business around in six months?”
Jolie took a sip of her coffee. “I’m going to rebrand.”
“What do you mean rebrand? Like, change what you post about?”
“Yeah. I’m going vegan.”
Nora’s eyes bulged, and she tilted her head back for a hearty laugh. “You’re joking, right?”
Jolie narrowed her eyes on Nora. “I’m not joking. I’m totally serious. Why does no one believe I can do it? Don’t you remember that meatless challenge I did in college? Thirty days without meat. It was a cinch.”
“Oh yeah. I remember. Those were dark days, my friend.” Nora’s eyes twinkled. “By day five, you had become an überbitch.”
“Hey!” Jolie said, throwing a crumpled napkin at Nora’s face. “I was not a bitch.”
Nora giggled into her cappuccino. “Yeah, you were.”
“Whatever. Things are different now. I’m doing it for the animals. I was up all night watching vegan documentaries. I can’t even stomach the idea of eating meat or dairy now.”
“I’ve seen you get after meat before. It would make all the vegans in the world shudder.”
“That’s not helpful, Nora.”
“Sorry. I don’t mean to be unsupportive,” Nora said. “I know you’ll be able to do whatever you put your mind to.”
Jolie relaxed in her chair. “Thanks.”
“So, you think that will work?” Nora said. “Going vegan?” She made air quotes with her hands as if it weren’t a real thing. “Isn’t that a bit disingenuous?”
“Listen, this is a business. I was doing a little research with my social media tool, and the analytics all point toward this being a good strategy. Vegan brands are on the rise. More and more people are talking about it. It’s becoming an increasing trend with no signs of slowing down anytime soon.”
Nora’s brows shot up, wrinkling her forehead. “Wow. You have analytics that tell you all that?”
“Oh yeah. Clicks. Shares. Video watches. The data doesn’t lie. I also found there’s a huge overlap between the yoga and vegan followers, so I won’t be alienating too many of my current followers by doing the switch.”
“I’m impressed that you know all that, but are you being your authentic self?”
“Sure I am. I can be vegan. I mean, I love animals. It’s a win-win. I’m a little disappointed in myself for not thinking of it earlier.”
“Well, whatever you do, make sure to slip in your sexy near-nude photos from time to time. You don’t want to alienate the creepy men who follow you for your… physique.” Nora winked, taking another sip from her cup.
“I’ve thought of that too. I will definitely need to keep up the bikini shots.”
“Vegan bikini shots?”
“I’m not sure that’s a thing, but I’ll look into it,” Jolie said. “Anyway, I was thinking about changing my location. Somewhere that’s warm all the time.”
Nora tilted an accusatory brow. “Aren’t you on a budget?”
“Yeah. So it has to be somewhere cheap.”
“Hm,” Nora said. “The desert?”
“Not a bad idea,” Jolie said. “Palm Desert could work, but I think I would get sick of the desert vibe thing.”
“How about Mexico?”
“Maybe… like Cabo San Lucas? That could work,” Jolie said, taking a mental note.
“Oh, I know! It’s been there in front of me the whole time. How about Costa Rica?” Nora said, pointing to the poster behind Jolie’s head. It was an advertisement for a Costa Rican coffee blend with a colorful toucan featured in the center. “I’ve always wanted to go there. They’ve got rainforests, beaches, sloths. It seems like it would be right up your alley.”
“Oooh,” Jolie cooed, “I just love sloths.”
“They’re so cute, right?”
“There you go,” Nora said. “I’m glad I could help.”
“You want to come with me?”
“I wish I could, but I promised Kellen I’d stay home with him for a while. The last book tour was way too long.”
“All right. I’ll go by myself then.”
“Is it safe for you to go alone?”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“Sounds like you’ve got a plan now.”
Jolie held her coffee up to her friend. “To new beginnings.”
Nora clinked her cup with hers. “To new beginnings.”