Blake Reynolds finally has everything under control. He and his father have ironed out the wrinkles in their relationship. He’s in love with his girlfriend. And with the turmoil of the last year firmly in the past, he’s ready to move on to the next phase of his life. Then the sister he didn’t know he had walks into his life. The mother he’s never met is in need of a liver transplant—and he’s the only possible match. Suddenly, everything he thought he knew turns inside out.
Tina Chen wants to believe in a future with Blake. But when she tries to make his life easier by bringing his father into the confusing tangle, the conflict escalates from a difficult family matter into a worldwide scandal. Loving Blake is easy, but the temporary happiness they’ve found together just means she’s all the more aware when “ever after” begins to slip out of her grasp…
My boyfriend’s sleek, fully electric vehicle stands out in the parking lot in my parents’ apartment complex, brand-new gleaming black paint juxtaposed against a collection of dried weeds and cracked asphalt. I stretch surreptitiously in the driver’s seat, feeling muscles that have been too still for too long protest.
In the seat next to mine, Blake glances in the side-view mirror. “Are you going to straighten…”
He trails off at my baleful glare. I should not have driven straight through from Coalinga. My butt hurts, my eyes feel too dry, and I have to pee. I’m annoyed with everything—probably because I’m thirsty and hungry and sore. This may not be the best time to argue with Blake. And yet here we are.
Wisely, he doesn’t finish his sentence. I’m not going to clean up my parking job, dammit. I’m in the lines. I’m maybe five degrees from parallel, and I’m done.
“You still haven’t decided what you’re doing this month,” he says.
I exhale and stare at the steering wheel. “Sky diving. And that’s my final offer.”
Blake Reynolds is my boyfriend. Some days—like right now—it still doesn’t feel real. We’ve been dating for a little over a year, and sometimes I feel like the weeds next to his perfectly-engineered Tesla. Over the last year, we’ve started a game of sorts. I used to play things far too safe, so now I’m trying to push myself. Every month, I’ve been doing something risky. It doesn’t have to be something big, but it has to be something that scares me. Something that stretches my boundaries. Over the last twelve months, I’ve taken a surprise road trip, gone bungee jumping, invested a thousand dollars in a startup, and bought a pair of heels that cost more than my monthly rent used to.
Blake glances briefly at me, then looks away. I know him well enough now to know that he’s holding something back. I can tell by the slight crinkle in his forehead, the dancing light in his steel-blue eyes. He rubs his eyes.
“Here’s another possibility.” He licks his lips. “We could go to Vegas this week. It’s not that far.”
“Ugh.” My lip curls of its own accord. “No, sorry. No gambling. That’s not risky; it’s just stupid. A good risk has some possibility of danger, but a high potential return. Gambling is—”
“Not to gamble,” he says quietly.
I look over at him. He looks…slightly nervous, actually. I roll my shoulders, trying to ditch the lingering soreness. Maybe we can get this over with and I can go to the bathroom.
“Fine. Go to Vegas for what?” The air conditioning in the car feels a little stale. I can feel the heat of the sun coming through the windows. Any moment, my mom will notice that we’ve arrived, and…
“You’re still planning to go to medical school?” Now he doesn’t just glance in my direction. He looks at me. I can’t look away.
I’m not sure what that has to do with Vegas. I didn’t apply to school in Vegas, and it’s too late to do more. I have my first two acceptances thanks to rolling admissions, and the last few responses should be in soon. I’ve accomplished everything I’ve sacrificed for over the past years. And the truth is, every time I think about going to medical school…
I feel irritated think about the future right now.
He’s watching me carefully.
“What does that have to do with Vegas?” I can’t keep the suspicion in my tone. “Don’t tell me your dad owns some other medical start up there.”
He shakes his head.
It’s something of a sore point between us. I had an internship at a biotech company last summer, and it was amazing. They had me working long-distance with a guy who was crazy-smart, doing things with 3D biological printing that nobody had ever done before. The company was smart, innovative, and exciting. They offered me a job, and while the salary wouldn’t match what I could make as a doctor, it would start immediately, without student loans.
All my years of carefully laid plans should have gone out the window.
If Blake is the gleaming futuristic car in my overgrown parking lot, his father is the UFO hovering overhead, casually poised to destroy us all.
It’s not as simple as great job versus medical school. Blake is wealthy in his own right, but his father owns eight percent of that little biotech company—and that’s one of his tiny investments, so insignificant I didn’t find out about it until the end of my summer there. To make it worse, bioLogica pulled my résumé when my name was catapulted into the Silicon Valley elite because I was dating that Blake Reynolds.
Giving up a career where I would have the credentials to do anything with anyone anywhere in the country, in exchange for one where I would always know that I was dependent on his family’s good will…? That’s the kind of risk I’m not willing to take.
Blake isn’t an asshole. He hasn’t pushed me on this. But I know that he wonders.
“Want to do something risky?” He doesn’t smile. “Come with me to Vegas this week and get married.”
The bottom drops out of my stomach. I stare at him. I don’t ask him to repeat himself. I don’t ask for an explanation.
He gives one anyway. “I don’t really care what choice you make,” he says. “If you want to be a doctor, be a doctor. If you don’t want to be a doctor, don’t. But don’t go to medical school just because you’re planning for a future without me.”
The air conditioning doesn’t feel like it’s working any more. The car is too hot, too stuffy. And Blake is right. The only reason I’m considering medical school at this point is because I need to be the financially stable one in my family. I want Mable to never have to skip movie night with friends when she goes to college. I want my mom to never have to pick up extra shifts at the cupcake food truck during fairs because she’s two weeks late on the electricity bill.
“Marriage is a bigger decision than medical school,” I hear myself say. “And if you don’t think it is, there’s no guarantee we’ll be together long enough to make a difference.”
Blake bites his lip. He runs his hand through sandy-blond hair. “California is a community property state,” is the non sequitur that comes out of his mouth.
I have no idea what that means. I frown at him.
“If we get married,” he explains, “you are considered equal owner of my assets. It’s a little more complicated than that, and I’d have to make you sign a prenup that allows me to solely vote my Cyclone B-class shares, but if we got married, it would always make a difference. You’d get a lot of money if we divorced.”
My irritation multiplies into a thousand little points of sandpaper. “Blake, are you saying I should marry you for your money, then divorce you and take you for everything you’re worth?”
He shrugs. “You don’t technically have to divorce me.”
Of all the things for him to say. I know my rising tide of frustration has as much to do with the fact that I’ve been trapped in this car for too long. It’s not entirely about the fact that he asked me to marry him for his stupid, goddamned money. But it’s too late; I’ve passed from annoyed into downright aggravated. His shrug grates on my fraying nerves. His nonchalance is about to send me over the edge.
I take hold of the door handle, but there’s no easy escape from this situation. I take a long, deep breath. “The answer is no. I’m not going to elope with you to Vegas this week. And it’s not because I think it’s too risky. It’s because good risk has a reward, and nothing about that sounds rewarding to me.”
“Not one thing?”
“First,” I tell him, “if we ever get married, we’re not getting away with a Vegas ceremony. You’re news, Blake, and your getting married in Vegas will—”
“Allow us to avoid the paparazzi who try and sneak in,” he puts in.
I glower at him. “Fuck the paparazzi. Getting married is partially about developing a common community. If you think we’re going to avoid throwing two giant parties—one down here, for my family and friends, and another one up in the Bay Area for yours—”
“And the entire Cyclone team,” he puts in.
“—then you are badly mistaken. Second, if we ever get married, it will be because I believe that we will have what my parents have.”
He glances dubiously behind me. “A two-bedroom apartment in Alhambra?”
I’m aware of every blade of dead grass stuffed in the cracks in the asphalt. My temper flares.
“Fine.” I undo my seatbelt. “You want to be a dick about it? Let’s be dicks. You didn’t grow up with parents who loved each other, so you don’t know what it’s like. You don’t know what it’s like when two people assume that whatever happens to them, they’ll get through together. You grew up with your dad always getting his way, and you know what? That doesn’t teach you shit about marriage.”
His face has gone blank.
“Marriage isn’t always easy,” I say, “but it’s worth it. If we get married, it’ll be because we decide that we work. That we can solve problems together and trust each other and not get in each other’s way. If we get married, it’ll be because we both know that this is what we want from our lives—each other. Not because you’re…” I gesture at him futilely, unable to find words for my anger.
His lips compress together in a white line. “Are you done yet?”
I open my door. It’s blazing hot outside. After three and a half years in the Bay Area, I always forget how hot Southern California is. “Yeah,” I say. “I’m done. Do you really think you’re ready to make a lifelong commitment?”
Maybe I want him to say yes.
But he just shrugs again. “No. But I don’t want you to worry. I don’t want you to worry ever again, not even if you walk away from me. Even if you can’t stand me three years from now, I want to nod and say, it’s okay, Tina is doing okay. That’s where I am.”
This has to be on the list of the world’s worst proposals. I look over at him, and…
And this is our last spring break. It’s the last time we’ll have a few relatively carefree days together, possibly ever. After this, I’m going to do…whatever it is I do. And he’s going to go back to Cyclone Technologies, his father’s company. I don’t want to fight. I exhale again, and try to push my frustration aside.
“I don’t need half your money to be okay. I would be okay financially without you. If we split up, it’s not going to be your money that I miss.”
He doesn’t meet my eyes. “Yeah. Fine.”
“Just don’t ask me to marry you because you want me to get your money if we divorce. That’s…” I don’t want to argue. I want to forget that we ever had this conversation. “That’s just going to make your dad start in on the kids thing even more.”
It’s the right thing to say. Blake laughs softly. “It wouldn’t make any difference. It’s not like he was married when he had me.”
Our eyes meet in temporary agreement on this one thing: Neither of us want kids, and our parents can—collectively—go soak their heads. It’s a good note on which to end the conversation.
I get out of the car and stretch my arms high.
“Come on,” I tell him. “There’s air conditioning to be had. We can talk about this later.”
With any luck, later will be never.
I’m thinking about password security as we ascend the steps to Tina’s parents’ apartment. It’s not as much of a non sequitur as it seems.
Thing is, Peter taught me how to pick a proper password back when he was still alive. I learned the trick from him when my fingers were still too small to stretch the span of the keyboard. Most people’s passwords are complete shit: a pet’s name, maybe with a number attached; a familiar date. These passwords can be cracked in minutes by any kid with a halfway decent script and a decent dictionary file. They can be cracked in a matter of seconds by anyone who takes the time to know you.
A real password, a good password, is a secret that you don’t even really tell yourself. If someone stuck little bamboo spears under your fingernails, you wouldn’t be able to spell it out. A good password is something you know in your fingers, not your head, and you can’t say it aloud, not even if you want to.
I keep secrets the way I store passwords: I hold them inside me, away from words, away from my conscious mind, away from all possibility that I will blurt out the truth.
I’ve told Tina about Peter. I’ve even told her the truth. Peter was my father’s best friend. He was the chief financial officer at Cyclone. He was like a second parent to me.
Secrets are funny. If you say them aloud in the right way, people don’t hear them. When I tell people that my father’s CFO was like a second parent to me, they classify him somewhere between a mentor or a high school coach.
A good password is stored in muscle memory. And all my secrets are stored in my flesh. Half my life is encrypted, hidden behind passwords, behind conversations that I can’t have about secrets that are not mine to tell. Not to my therapist. Not to my girlfriend.
I’ve told everyone the same thing: Peter was like a second parent to me. I’ve never said that he was like a mentor or a high school coach. I said that he was like a second parent. Even Tina didn’t hear what I had actually said.
She rummages through her purse, her head bent. Tina is the best thing that could have happened to me. She’s down to earth and rational. Without her, I wouldn’t know how much I didn’t know. She’s wearing a T-shirt and jeans—appropriate for a long drive down—but her hair spills around her as she bends her head over her purse, a dark silk cloud that dresses her up into something more beautiful than anything I’ve seen before. With her…
She unlocks the door and steps inside. “Hello? Mom?”
I can hear her mother in the kitchen singing along to B.B. King—a made-up version of lyrics.
“Hello?” she calls a little louder. “Mom?”
The radio shuts off.
“Tina?” Her mother pads out into the front room. There’s a strong family resemblance, only slightly hidden by the decades between them. Tina’s a few inches taller than her mother, which means that her mother is tiny indeed. But her mother has only a few threads of gray hair. They have the same nose, the same eyes.
Her mother’s eyes light up when she sees her daughter.
Mrs. Chen swiftly crosses the distance to her daughter and gives her a hug. “You were supposed to call when you were an hour away.”
“It’s my fault,” I put in swiftly. “I was distracting her.”
Mrs. Chen turns to me. “Blake.” She gives me a hug, too. “Always distracting. It’s good. Tina needs someone to distract her. She’s so serious.”
Tina almost—but doesn’t—sigh.
Mrs. Chen continues. “Mabel is at band practice still. Your father is out with his mahjong group.”
Tina frowns dubiously. “Since when does Dad play mahjong?”
“I know.” Mrs. Chen makes a face. “I went one time, but Zhu Yen makes up all the rules. When I complained, he just said, ‘Oh, well, that’s how it’s played in Taiwan.’”
“Gosh,” Tina says with a straight face. “Those Taiwanese interlopers.”
“In any event,” Mrs. Chen continues, “after I came armed with print-outs from the internet, all over the world, they threw me out. Too much rules-lawyering, they said.”
I nod in what I hope looks like sympathy. “How terrible. I can’t imagine anyone saying such a thing about you?”
Mrs. Chen detects my sarcasm and pokes me in the ribs. “Don’t be smart to me. It’s bad luck.”
“I read it on the internet.” She says this with no sense of irony at all. “Oh, and Tina? Your fat white friend is here. She said she needed to talk to you. She’s waiting in your room.”
Tina grimaces. “Mom.”
“What? Should I have had her wait out here?”
“I’ve told you a million times. Her name is Bethany. Bethany. Don’t call her—”
“But she is fat. How is it—”
“You know what?” Tina sets her purse on the counter. “We’re not going to have this conversation where she can hear it. I’ll explain later.” Tina takes my hand and pulls me toward the room that she shares with her younger sister.
“So,” I say in a low voice, “I gather your mom calls me the skinny white boyfriend to her friends?”
Tina lets out a little snort. “Uh. No. You’re my rich white boyfriend.”
“We were going to have drinks with Bethany after dinner, but honestly, she was kind of freaked out at the prospect of meeting you. She probably just came over to get it over with. She’s really nice, though. You’ll like her.” Tina pushes open the door to her room.
“Hey, Bethany. Sorry about…”
The woman who is sitting at the chair at the desk stands as the door opens. Her hair is a wavy blond; her eyes are a dark brown. She is pinup-model pretty—bold features made bolder by dark eyeliner and bright red lipstick. She’s wearing something vintage and blue. And for some reason, when she looks at me, I can’t look away.
Tina stops short in her tracks. “You’re not Bethany.”
“I’m sorry,” the woman who is apparently not Bethany says. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t realize your mom thought I was someone else, until she did, and then it felt super-awkward to correct her. She told me to wait here and…I really need to talk to you.” Not-Bethany wrings her hands together.
Tina’s shoulders have gone straight. She steps back, as if making sure I’m still behind her.
We might have just argued in the car, but I’m with her. I put my hand on her elbow, reassuring her. I’m here. I won’t let anything happen to you. It’s going to be okay.
“Who are you?” Tina’s voice is cold.
“Ellie.” She’s talking to Tina, but she keeps looking at me. “I’m Ellie Wise.” She licks her lips and looks at me more earnestly.
Maybe I should know her from Cyclone. My dad never forgets a face. I’m not as good as he is. Something about Ellie seems distinctly familiar, somehow, but I don’t know what. I command my brain to giving up whatever distant memory tickles me. My brain doesn’t comply.
Ellie shuts her eyes and exhales slowly. “Shit. You don’t know who I am.”
“Am I supposed to?” Tina asks.
I’m supposed to. There is something about her that I can’t quite put my finger on. Something that raises the hair on the back of my neck, like a memory of a ghost.
“My mother is Ginny Wise.” Her gaze slides to mine again. “She’s in the hospital. I’m sorry. I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m just really, really nervous. You don’t know who that is?”
I shake my head.
She swallows. “It’s okay. I have a plan B. I always have a plan B.” She crosses the room to me. She’s somewhere between me and Tina in height, and this close…
Yeah, I feel like I do know her. Like there’s something about the shape of her face that reminds me…
It reminds me, strangely enough, of a password.
Secrets are like passwords. You store them in your flesh. You don’t give voice to them, not ever. My dad involved me in every aspect of the company from basically the time I was born, and that means I know all about secrets. By the time I was five years old, I was giving interviews on television. This is how you keep secrets: you don’t stand still. I learned to move my hands if I wanted to tell someone about the new phone Cyclone was working on, to walk around if I wanted to talk about our latest operating system additions. If you think about the feel of fabric against your hands, or the placement of your feet, you can push the urge to tell your secrets right out of your mind. By the time I was five, I was keeping all kinds of things under wraps.
Right now, looking at Ellie, I feel the urge to run. To get out of here, before something I’ve never said, something I never even let myself think, something that’s stored in my muscles instead of my brain comes out
It’s too late.
The woman who isn’t Bethany holds out a shaking hand to me. “My name is Eleanor Wise.” Her voice trembles. “And I’m pretty sure I’m your older sister.”
The code name for this book is: 3:52 AM.
And no, I won’t explain that. It’s spoilery.
No, this is not going to end in a cliff hanger, and no, it's not going to restart the same old drama between Tina and Blake. But if you’ve read Trade Me, you know that there are a few things that are left unresolved at the end. This is a book about those things.