Love at first sight absolutely, positively doesn’t exist…
Kesa Sapiro had to grow up fast. With her parents gone and a little sister to protect, Kesa has spent over a decade of her life trying to keep a roof over their heads. She’s learned the hard way that love is a luxury and that the price is way too high. When her sister Josie announces she wants to marry a boy she’s known for less than a month, Kesa immediately forbids it.
Shannon Dealan is floored when her son-by-choice says he wants to get married to a girl he’s just met. Shannon has real reason to scrutinize any strangers who come into Paz’s life. She’s not about to let him do anything stupid — and that includes believing in love at first sight. She knows too well there’s no such thing.
Hoping to soften the objections of their jaded, overbearing elders, Josie and Paz arrange for them to meet and discuss the future like civilized adults … but absolutely nothing goes as planned.
It’s probably a good thing readers can’t hear me cackle with delight when I am puppet-mastering the characters through their story. For this book I cackled. A lot.
Jennifer Lamont makes an appearance – more than one appearance. The woman just won’t leave me alone, and it’s a good thing.
“You can’t get married!” Kesa Sapiro knew she was shouting and the neighbors would bang on the wall, but sometimes it was the only way Josie could hear her.
Her sister stomped one booted foot. “I knew you’d be against it. You never want me to have anything of my own.”
The accusation was unfair and Josie even looked shamefaced as she said it. Or Kesa wanted to believe she did. “You don’t even know this boy. Date him. But why get married?”
The truculent expression mutated instantly to one of besotted dreaminess, the same face Josie had displayed for years over pop stars and hunky actors. “Because we’re in love, Key. We’re meant for each other. We knew it the moment we met.”
“That’s absurd. You’re not a kid anymore. Are you pregnant?” Kesa’s blood raced in panic at the thought. They couldn’t afford a child, and she was sure this boy had as much money as Josie did, which was none.
Josie’s eyes widened in outrage. “As if! I met him three weeks ago. Besides, we’re very, very careful. Paz and I both agree that we want to be parents, but not now.”
“Then what’s the hurry? Lots of people live together.”
The dreamy expression was back. “I want a ring on him—he’s gorgeous and thoughtful and kind and smart.”
Kesa forced herself to take a calmer tone. She sat back down on the couch, instinctively avoiding the one spot where the cushions dipped precipitously. “If it takes a ring to keep him, you won’t keep him.”
“What do you know about it? Your last date was at least two years ago. Just because you can’t find anyone doesn’t mean love isn’t real.”
“I work, remember?” So much for calm. “My own business, and every single day. I don’t have time to date.”
Josie crossed her arms and lifted her chin. “I’m making time.”
“Plenty of time for it when I pay all the bills—”
Josie rolled her eyes at a nonexistent audience. “Here we go.”
They’d had this argument before, but Josie never seemed to get it. “You’re only nineteen. You can’t get married.”
“Yes, I can. It’s legal. I do not need your permission and I wouldn’t even if you were my mother. Which you are not.”
Kesa bit back a furious assertion that she’d done every last damn thing mothers were supposed to do for the last twelve years. “But you want me to help arrange this wedding and pay for it, right?”
Josie’s gaze narrowed to angry slits. “I want you there because you’re my sister.”
First time that was the reason for anything, Kesa thought bitterly. If they kept at this, she was going to say that aloud, and she’d regret it. “This is absurd. I’m going to be late to the fitting in West Hollywood.”
“Fine, you don’t want to talk about it. But I’m still getting married.”
“When I was nineteen I wasn’t thinking about love and romance.” Why bring up that having a love life—especially a lesbian one—would have heightened the scrutiny from Child Services? Her position had been precarious enough as it was. “I had to work, and I’m still working.”
“Don’t remind me what a burden I have always been to you.”
“That’s not what I meant, Jo-Jo.” But sometimes, Lord help her, that was exactly what Kesa meant. Twelve years of being big-sister-turned-mother hadn’t been easy. Their heads were finally above water, and now that Josie might be able to stand on her own two feet just a little more, go to college, have control over her own life, she wanted to give that all up for a boy. “We will talk about this later, but I can’t be late. The fitting is for a big star—”
Josie waved a hand in dismissal. “I know, and she might say your name to the right people and we’ll be rich, like Mom and Dad were.”
“Word of mouth is the only thing that keeps new clients calling. It is everything in my business. I might finally be able to afford a workshop and we can finally have a living room without all this stuff.” She gestured at the two sewing machines, the dressmaker dummies and the huge stack of fabric bolts, and coiled trim, thread, and glue supplies. It had been months since they’d opened the curtains. Half the living room and hallway of their tiny two-bedroom apartment was filled with the tools and supplies of her trade. She longed for a bedroom which didn’t have the folding table she used to cut cloth leaning against the far side of her narrow, cold bed.
“You’ve been saying that for years.” Josie’s shrug was infuriating.
“No, I’ve been working for it for years. That’s how you get what you want, not with dreams and wishes.” Kesa pressed her lips together. Josie was already turning away and pulling her phone out of her pocket. “We’ll talk about this when I get back.”
“Whatever.” The door to Josie’s bedroom closed a little too loudly.
Kesa carefully transported the garment bag to her battered hatchback. After hanging it on the rung mounted across the cargo area, she said a little prayer and was rewarded by the car starting up without its usual histrionics.
At least today she didn’t look like a junk yard on wheels. Usually, with the back seats folded down and master Tetris skills fully deployed, the car held a short folding table, portable sewing machine, fabric bolts, and two dressmaker dummies—enough for fitting out a bridal party. Her lack of a workshop meant she always went to her clients. Her flexibility had brought her to the notice of higher profile clients, like the one she was fitting today, on a sunny spring Sunday afternoon when other people were walking at the beach or having a coffee and eating muffins while they talked about books and movies and flirted with their perfect blond hair and perfect teeth smiles and enjoyed their perfect electronics and perfect lives.
That was life in La-La Land, according to commercials and TV. It had never been her life.
The traffic from Echo Park on 101 was slow in all directions, but no worse than usual for a weekend afternoon. She opted for the longer but less brutal surface route that skirted the Silver Lake neighborhood as she wended her way toward Hollywood. Her destination was where the storied Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards met and a condominium tower she had never thought she’d visit. Filipino daughters of once-wealthy parents didn’t keep up with Kardashians.
Josie didn’t really remember what it had been like to be rich, but Kesa did. Nor did Josie seem to understand—or really want to—that their parents had abandoned the Philippines ahead of the mob that was after anyone who had enjoyed the largess of a despot. They’d grabbed the money and jewelry they could and headed for the American Dream to have babies and live large. Their one precious gift to their daughters was their birthplace of Los Angeles. Josie knew kids at school who’d lived in L.A. almost all of their lives, but had no immigration status. On top of everything else, at least Kesa hadn’t been terrified of being deported.
A decade in Los Angeles had left their parents broke. Josie had only been a bit of a bump in her mother’s stomach on the February day her father, without warning, had driven Kesa to a new school, a public one that was free. She never spoke to any of her private school friends after that. No more ski trips, no more shopping at the bookstore, no more allowance for school clubs and field trips. Just when Kesa had finally adapted to the new school, they’d moved. Moved again, and again, one bewildering step after another. She was fifteen and Josie still a toddler before she realized that their moves were prompted by bill collectors.
If her parents had practiced even the tiniest amount of prudence there might have been something for their daughters to live on when they and their latest BMW skidded on a wet road into a wall of concrete. There hadn’t even been insurance to help with a funeral. She and Josie had had eight days to leave the house that was four months behind on rent.
That had been the first hard, bitter decision of Kesa’s new life as a nineteen-year-old adult with a seven-year-old dependent. No money for a funeral, so there hadn’t been one. She’d spent the time in government offices full of people like her, applying for assistance to get through a really rough patch. She and Josie had been on the verge of being homeless, and the Child Services people wanted to take Josie away the moment Kesa failed at any test.
She’d put the living over the dead. Every last dollar she had and anything she could sell had found them a studio apartment she could rent by the week. She’d turned to the only skill she had, sewing, and bitterly thanked a mother who had decided there was no point paying for fashion up-touches to her outfits, not when she had a child who could learn to do it for free. Kesa had been so good at it that she’d brought home projects for her to do as “favors” for friends. Halfway through high school Kesa had figured out that her mother was collecting gifts and tips from the friends. Nevertheless, her ability to quickly hem silk by hand had kept her and Josie in rent and basic food.
Josie didn’t remember—or didn’t want to remember—that Child Services had visited regularly. Kesa had finally given up trying to pay off the debts she’d inherited and declared bankruptcy, losing access to credit for years. Living on cash had garnered plenty of suspicion as to its source from landlords and social workers. Kesa had been tasked dozens of times to verify that she could make ends meet working from home, that Josie had regular meals and rarely missed school. Keeping them together had been priority number one. They’d eaten a lot of noodles, beans, generic peanut butter, and vegetables from dented cans.
The plain containers with her parents’ ashes had sat gathering dust in a corner until one bleak night during a rare rainstorm she’d driven to a park she didn’t know and poured them into a hole she dug with a plastic cup and her bare hands.
She’d been so angry. She was still angry. And afraid every day of losing everything she’d worked for through the caprice of other people.
Fear had already cost her a promising relationship—she’d clung so fast, and so hard, that the other woman had slipped through her fingers. Since then she’d decided she didn’t have time to date. She hardly cared that she knew she was lying. It got her through lonely nights. Their lives were still precarious and the dynamic of a third person would have risked the delicate balance she worked so hard to maintain.
And now, she reminded herself with a shock, Josie wanted to do precisely that. She could not get married. She just couldn’t.
Offshore fog had cooled the afternoon and sitting at a stoplight with the windows down was no hardship, especially since her favorite radio station tuned in well in this part of L.A. The tinny speakers didn’t do justice to Prince and the sports car next to her was pulsating with the thump of its own bass speakers. Didn’t matter. The fight with Josie had left her shaken, but no elevator was going to bring her down from enjoying the fresh air.
She’d been extra stressed lately and knew that was part of her anxious, hostile reaction to Josie’s big news. With the dream of having an actual workshop space almost realized, her gut told her that someone or something would snatch it away, like everything else. Lucky Josie lived like a butterfly when Kesa had to keep both eyes on potential predators.
She had hoped to leave thirty minutes earlier, but when Josie said she needed to talk, it was always some kind of bombshell. Two months ago it had been finding the meaning of life through watercolors and now there were stacks of portfolio sheets alongside Kesa’s fabric bolts. Six months ago it had been joining a traveling musical group to master her passion for guitar. A year ago the passion had been filmmaking.
And now it was a boy.
As she turned onto Sunset and began the hunt for a parking space, she put Josie out of her mind to focus on the work. The actress she was working for was a huge name. The dress was for a charity awards gala, the kind of event where a Wang or Chanel gown would be ostentatiously out of place. Instead, the guest of honor wanted a gown designed and made locally, simpler in the details and fabric, and fitted perfectly. And increasingly, for exactly the right dress for the right occasion, a number of A listers were calling on Kesa Sapiro.
She’d learned over the years that celebrities were people—kind, rude, dismissive, appreciative. The gamut. But none of them had a minute to waste. Being late was taken as disrespectful and wasn’t tolerated more than once. Some of them liked to gossip and expected Kesa to Tweet about the wonder of working with them, but most didn’t. She’d signed plenty of non-disclosure agreements—nobody wanted their measurements on Instagram. She stayed completely focused on the work, watched carefully, and listened hard. A flick of an eyebrow could be the difference between a one hundred percent-satisfied customer and utter disaster.
She circled the block again, hoping against hope someone would leave. Parking was the worst part of the gig. The best part was Lamont herself. You always knew where you stood with Jennifer Lamont. She was one of the ruling stateswomen of Hollywood and a plum to have as a client. This was her third gown for Lamont and she’d landed two other clients from direct referral, and that was why a workshop was finally a possible dream. Celebrities paid well, and gladly, for personal service and quality.
Lamont was friendly, but distant, and Kesa respected those boundaries. The star didn’t need to know that Kesa had seen all of her movies and every episode of every TV show she’d been on and been thrilled to the absolute moon to discover her idol was also a lesbian.
“There’s one!” The best thing about driving a cramped hatchback was winning at the parking wars. She slammed on the brakes, U-turned and parallel parked it into a space, leaving a double-wide Hummer to search elsewhere. She was only five minutes early instead of her preferred fifteen for Lamont.
The doorman in the exclusive building knew her, and had been instructed to let her up to the penthouse foyer where she could wait in privacy. Directly opposite the elevator was a clothing rack to hang her garment bag. A little bar-height table and chair were in full view of the security camera. There was already a dry cleaner’s bag waiting—it looked like a tuxedo for Lamont’s wife, unless Lamont was going full Marlene Dietrich somewhere.
A delicious and distracting thought she would mull over later.
Glad to have a moment to compose herself, she took advantage of the electrical outlet next to the chair to add some juice to her phone. Service providers like her waited on the celebrity, not the other way around, but at least Lamont made it comfortable. She checked her hair and smoothed the velvet collar on her oxford blouse, glad she hadn’t been so frazzled she’d forgotten to change. Nobody wanted to buy haute couture from a disheveled designer.
Josie had resumed churning in her thoughts when the elevator dinged and Jennifer Lamont strode out. As usual, Kesa had a moment of vertigo being in her presence. Lamont was vivid, that was always the word Kesa thought of in response. The first impression was the deep blue eyes and full crimson lips, then the smoky dark hair, flawless ecru skin, and the kind of perfectly molded female curves that made Kesa doubt they were the same species. She reeled in her tongue and hopped down from the bar stool.
Hard on Jennifer’s heels was her wife, Suzanne Mason. She was even taller than Lamont and lanky. She was involved in tech and financing, which made her oodles of money. She seemed nice, was attractive in her own way, Kesa supposed. Her best feature was her smile, and she did plenty of that around Lamont. Their palpable affection for each other made Kesa all the more aware of her own empty bed and empty prospects.
After greetings, Kesa ignored the stunning view and went directly to the bedroom that Lamont used as a wardrobe and dressing area. She set her tailoring kit on the small work table and unzipped the garment bag.
Lamont breezed in, yelling over her shoulder, “Don’t you dare put the last wall on without me.” To Kesa she said, “Crazy woman thinks the Legos are all hers.”
Kesa laughed. “This won’t take long.”
“I’d appreciate a few minutes to relax before the event,” Lamont said as she unceremoniously stripped down to her undergarments. Kesa supposed in another setting she’d be having a heart attack, but her appreciation for Lamont’s curves was purely professional at the moment. The last thing she wanted was for a client to get a skeevy vibe from her.
She shook the dress out of its bag and was pleased when Lamont exclaimed, “That’s even more gorgeous than I expected—and I expected it to be beautiful. You’re a genius.”
The rich, blue silk was supple and enhanced with over-threading in the same shade that caught the light with a subtle glow. The color was what Kesa called “Lamont Sapphire” in her mind, and having made three dresses for Lamont now, she was always on the look for it in shops and catalogs. Retro cuts suited Lamont perfectly, and the gown was based on a 1930s Butterick cocktail dress pattern that featured a demure high collar in the front with a not-so-demure keyhole opening across the shoulder blades. Lamont had plenty of jewelry to suit the look, and the wall behind Kesa was lined with shoes that Kesa lusted after every time she saw them.
With the dress slipped over her head and hair adjusted, Kesa tsk’d at how the opening on the back fell and marked two places with pins. “Your bra is showing, but I can gather the top and bottom so it won’t.”
Lamont was looking at her silhouette over one shoulder. “Where will you hem it to?”
Kesa folded up the back over one calf and clipped it. “I was thinking about here. There’s so much fabric that it will flatter at a slightly longer cut. The drape is better.”
“That seems perfect. I was thinking mid-height heel. Those vintage Saks on the end there.”
Kesa looked where Lamont was pointing and tried not to drool. “The silver lamé and gold satin T-straps? Those would be killer.”
“Add a long string of pearls and I’m done. You’ve made this very easy.”
Relief washed over Kesa. “I should have this ready in about twenty minutes,” she said as she helped Lamont avoid the pins as she maneuvered out of the dress.
“I appreciate the time you take to put in these hidden zippers. I hate being sewn into clothes. Makes me feel trapped.”
“And you never know when the zombies will be after you.” Kesa hoped her reference to one of Lamont’s most famous television roles wasn’t over a boundary of some kind.
But Lamont laughed appreciatively as she wrapped herself in a white French terry robe. “I know, right? We can’t fight with just our principles. I’ll be down the hall. Call out when you want me back.”
Kesa got down to work. Nobody liked hemming anything by hand, but delicate fabrics were easily ruined by machines. It was a meditative exercise, punctuated by the silver flash of the needle and the shush of the thread as she pulled it gently through the silk.
Twenty minutes later the hem and sleeves were done, and the dress looked smashing on Lamont, especially after she stepped into the gorgeous vintage shoes. Lamont’s wife approved the dress, declaring that it made the nape of Lamont’s neck the most sensuous two inches of skin on the planet.
Kesa was still smiling when she got back into her car, and her smile redoubled as she thought of the invoice she’d forward to Lamont’s accountant tomorrow. They paid promptly—the deposit and three month’s rent on the workshop space were nearly hers.
As she left the rising glitter of Santa Monica Boulevard behind, her thoughts of course returned to Josie. What was she going to do?
Josie was the age now Kesa had been that horrible day their parents had died. She had completely different choices than Kesa had faced with a grade school sister to feed and care for. She was on track for a degree from UCLA, courtesy of a hard-won mathematics scholarship. She could be anything, go anywhere, be almost anyone she chose to be. All horizons were open to her. Why on earth would she say no to all of them for a boy she’d met only weeks ago?
True love, picket fences, and the American Dream—how could Josie think they were gifts that fell from the sky instead of something you earned?
“Twoo wuv,” Kesa muttered, “and mawiage.” Josie was no Princess Buttercup and she was sure this boy was no knight in shining armor.