She smiled and squeezed his hand.

“Thanks for letting me know.” She took another sip of coffee. “Whose party is it again?”

“Heather’s. She’s an old friend of mine. She’s got a great house, right on the beach.”

He should probably mention that he’d dated her, just so she wouldn’t find out from someone else.

“Uh, Heather and I used to sort of date, but that was a long time ago.”

“Oh.” She twisted a finger around a lock of her hair. “Okay.” She looked down at her half-eaten pancakes, so he couldn’t see her face. “What time should we go?”

Did she not care that he’d dated Heather? It’s not like he wanted her to be all jealous about it. Okay, maybe just a little jealous would be nice.

“I kind of wanted to go on the early side, since I’m on call tonight. So, like, four or five?”

She opened her mouth, closed it, and drew her knees up against her chest.

“Maybe”—he wrapped his arms around her, knees included—“I can go for another run, and it can end like it did yesterday?”

“Mmmm.” She turned her head back toward him, and he claimed her mouth. “You taste like syrup,” she said, when they ended the kiss.

“If you like that, I have plenty more syrup, you know. There are many things we can do with it that don’t involve pancakes.”

She turned more fully around.

“Hmmm, that sounds interesting. Waffles, you mean? Do you have a waffle iron?”

He shook his head.

“Biscuits? My mom always puts syrup on biscuits.”

He ran his hand down that deep V of his flannel robe that she loved to wear. And that he loved for her to wear.

“Nope,” he said, his hand lingering at her left breast.

“Hmmm.” She wiggled her shoulder, and the robe fell. “Then I don’t know. Tell me.”

He leaned forward to whisper in her ear as his hands roamed over her body.

He didn’t have time for a run before the party.

Alexa realized after thirty seconds at Heather’s party that she was out of her element. Maybe every woman at the party wasn’t blond, but wow, did it sure look like it. And not just blond, but that perfect honey blond with golden highlights, all either up in swinging ponytails or down in flowing waves, in utter defiance of the humid air from the coast.

And it wasn’t just the hair. They were all wearing those barely there dresses—the kind that you couldn’t wear a bra with, the kind that Alexa always walked right by in the store—and their bodies looked perfect in them. She looked down at herself in the forgiving red and white polka-dot A-line dress she’d felt cute in before leaving Drew’s apartment and sighed.

She saw at a glance she was the only black person there, but at least she knew more would show up eventually. She squeezed Drew’s hand, grateful again to him for thinking to tell her that. He smiled down at her.

“Oh great, there’s Heather,” Drew said.

Oh great. His ex.

She had originally been glad he’d told her that tidbit of information before they’d arrived at the party. Way better than if she found out from another guest, or even worse, from Heather herself. But right now, as tall, thin, blond Heather turned to greet her, she wished she didn’t know.

“Heather, this is Alexa,” Drew was saying. Alexa noticed that he didn’t hesitate this time. She wasn’t even “my . . .” today, huh? “Alexa, Heather. We brought beer.”

“Drew, good to see you!” Heather hugged first him, then Alexa. Given no choice in the matter, Alexa returned the hug. “Nice to meet you! Beer goes in the kitchen. Go outside and join the party. I’ve got lots of beer and sangria, and the grills are all going.”

They joined a group of people outside, Drew with a beer and Alexa with a glass of sangria. She almost coughed when she took a sip; there was a lot more alcohol in that sangria than she’d been expecting. Drew introduced her to more people, and she tried to deal with this party the way she would at work: smile, make small talk, ask questions, get people talking about themselves. Like the way she’d done at the wedding.

The thing was, right now she was too anxious to be professional Alexa. When she was at work events, she was confident. There, she knew who she was and what she was doing. The wedding had been a lark, with a guy she barely knew, where she was just playing a role. Here, none of those things were true. She felt uncertain. Off-kilter. She took another sip of sangria and plastered a smile on her face.

She fell back on the time-honored way to befriend strange women: compliments.

“I love your sandals!” she said to a woman named Emma. At least she was strawberry blond.

“Thanks!” Emma said. Like lobbing a tennis ball back to Alexa, she returned the compliment. “Great lipstick! I always wish I could wear red lipstick, but with this hair, I feel like it always clashes.”

“Oh no, I think there’s a perfect red lipstick for everyone; it just takes trial and error. You need plenty of time at Sephora and a friend you trust.”

They talked about makeup for a while longer. Either the conversation or the glass of sangria relaxed Alexa enough so that she stopped scanning the party for someone with brown skin or an errant eyebrow hair or even a tiny roll of fat.

She walked over to refill her glass of sangria. A guy Drew had just introduced her to followed her.

“Alexa, right? Having fun so far?” He put an arm around her. Lots of huggers at this party.

“Yeah, it’s great.” She stepped to the side so she could pour her drink. “Mike, right?”

“Yeah, so smart of you to remember.” Mike liked to stand close, didn’t he? “So Alexa, where are you from?”

She took a sip of her sangria and a half step backward.

“Berkeley. I’m just down here for the weekend.”

Oh look, he’d moved closer.

“You live in Berkeley? That’s cool. But I meant, like, where are you really from?”

Now she knew where this was going. Like she couldn’t “really” be from California? Why did people always try to ask her about her ethnicity in the clumsiest of all possible ways? Getting this question, especially in this way, always made her feel like such an object of curiosity. Today it made her feel like even more of an Other in this party full of golden-haired beauty queens.

Now she was doubly annoyed with Mr. Stands Too Close. So she was going to fuck with him.

“Oh, not that far from there. I grew up in Oakland. Northern California girl!” She gave him her biggest, fakest grin.

He chuckled and took another swig of his beer.

“No, no, like where are you from from? Where are your parents from?”

This conversation was so predictable. Yet this dance people did was irritating every time.

“My parents are from California, too. My dad grew up here in L.A., actually, and my mom up in the Bay Area. What about yours?”

She felt a hand land on the small of her back and relaxed. She turned and saw Drew there next to her, as she knew he would be.

“Is Mike monopolizing you?” He grinned at Mike and did that hand slap thing guys did instead of hugging. “How’s it going, man?”

Mike’s eyes flashed to Drew’s arm disappearing around her back, and he took a step backward.

“Good, good, just stopped to chat here with your friend Alisha.”

She gritted her teeth, not even caring anymore if it looked like a smile.

“Alexa.”

Mike laughed and lifted his glass of sangria to hers.

“Right, right, Alexa, of course. Nice to talk to you.”

She walked with Drew toward the grills. As soon as they were out of earshot, she said, “I don’t like that guy.”

He stopped walking and turned to her.

“Why, what did he do?”

She made a face.

“Remember that Bill guy from the wedding? Creepy and borderline offensive?”

Now he stopped walking.

“It wasn’t borderline. Mike’s like that guy? Damn it, I’m sorry. I should have come to find you earlier.”

He believed her. Just like that. So often, guys would jump in to defend other men when women said they’d crossed a line. It had happened to her over and over again.

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