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Always: A Novel

Author: Sarah Jio

Narrator: Brittany Pressley

Unabridged: 8 hr 40 min

Format: Digital Audiobook

Publisher: Random House Audio

Published: 02/07/2017

Genre: Fiction - Contemporary Women



November 15, 2008

“Oh no, why do I always do that?” I say to my fiancé, Ryan, as we walk into the restaurant.

“Do what, baby?”

“Leave my purse in the car.”

We just valet-­parked, and as we look out the window Ryan’s white BMW is driving off. “I’ll go get it, my forgetful one,” he says, kissing my cheek. “You grab our table. I’ll be back in a sec.”

Four years ago, we had our first date at Le Marche, the French restaurant on Fourth Avenue with a waiting list five months out. Somehow Ryan was able to get us a table, just like he got us one tonight. My fiancé, it seems, can move mountains.

“I want you to have a perfect night,” he said when he surprised me with the reservation. He reached for my hand as if he never wanted to let go, the diamond, much larger than I wanted, sparkling on my ring finger. We’re getting married in July, at the Fairmont.

“Do you have a reservation?” the host asks as I check my coat.

“Yes,” I say. “Two. Under Winston.” It’s hard to believe, but in a matter of months I’ll be Mrs. Ryan Winston; that is, if I take Ryan’s name. He wants me to, and part of me does, as well. I mean, this is the Winston family, confidants of the Gateses and the Nordstroms. This is a family name one doesn’t eschew.

But I’ve always been Kailey Crain. KC, although no one has really called me that since, well, the sixth grade. Still, it’s hard to just let that go. I close my eyes tightly, then open them again, trying to banish a memory that’s fighting its way to the surface.

“Right this way,” the host says, leading me to an intimate table by the window. I peer through the glass, noticing the way the raindrops make the lights outside look like gemstones. Seattle may be an old gray lady, but she still sparkles under cloud cover. I tug nervously at the right sleeve of my dress, pulling it higher on my arm, the way I do when I’m mingling with the type of people Ryan grew up with. He isn’t a big fan of the tattoo on my shoulder, and I suppose I’m not either. Skin inked a decade prior is a glaring reminder of a past that didn’t become a future, of the dreams that evaporated into thin air. I couldn’t hold on to them, and yet the word toujours, French for “always,” remains branded on my skin. I rub my shoulder, wishing for a magic eraser.

I sit down, place my cellphone on the table, and watch as couples stroll by outside, hovering under hoods and shared umbrellas. A woman in her twenties clutches her boyfriend or husband, and they laugh as they precariously dodge a mud puddle. The scene transports me back to age twenty-­two, to the year Tracy and I moved to Seattle. Back then, we were wide-­eyed and idealistic. We believed in true love and happy endings.

Funny how things turn out.

I catch my reflection in the window. My shoulder-­length brown hair is showing signs of frizz, rendering the time I spent flat-­ironing my thick, naturally wavy locks a veritable waste of time. But what did it matter—­wasn’t Ryan always telling me he liked my natural curls? My green eyes? My nose dusted with freckles? I smile to myself. My life is full now, with my job at the Herald, making plans to remodel the Craftsman in Wallingford, the one I bought with . . . Ryan, of course.

I smile as he walks into the restaurant with my purse in hand.

“It’s a monsoon out there,” he says, handing me the black Michael Kors bag he bought me for Christmas last year, then smoothing his rain-­soaked hair. Handsome is the best word to describe him. Classically handsome. Tracy’s initial impression, whispered in the bathroom of a restaurant the night I first introduced them, was that he resembled a strapping Disney prince come to life. He did, and he does. Tall and toned with a thick head of dark hair: Give him a shield and white horse and Ryan is the spitting image of the cartoon prince who swept Cinderella off her feet. I’m lucky.

He reaches for my hand across the table. “I called earlier and made sure they had your favorite Bordeaux. Remember, our perfect night is just beginning.”

I grin as he pulls my hand to his lips.

“Every detail counts,” he says with a sweet smile.” You’ve seemed a little distracted, and I want to be there for you.”

I tug on my engagement ring and nod. He’s always been able to read me, perhaps better than I can read myself. “It’s been hell at work since I’ve added the business beat to my ongoing reporting on life in Seattle,” I reply. “I’ve been crunching to get that series about Pioneer Square written.”

The first of three pieces was published today. I’m certain Ryan has read it, but we’ve agreed to disagree on the areas where our professional interests diverge. He’s a smart man, sharp enough to know that his taking issue with my article would ruin the night before it has even begun.

He bends the rules by steering the conversation to other people’s opinions, people who are not present at this cozy table for two. “You know, a lot of my colleagues think they should dynamite that six-­block radius.”

I shake my head. “Is that you talking or your risk-­management team?”

“It’s difficult to ignore the fact that there isn’t much down there but addicts and vagrants. You can barely walk two feet without stepping in human excrement.”

“Well,” I say, weighing the satisfaction of making my case against Ryan’s romantic plans for the evening, “the people there need help, and the Hope Gospel Mission is the only organization doing anything about it. The way I see it, the vitality of a nonprofit is a crucial measure of neighborhood longevity. You can’t blame me for wanting to help them keep their doors open.”

The sommelier arrives and uncorks Ryan’s preselected bottle of red before pouring us each a glass.

“Honey,” Ryan says tenderly as I take a sip of my wine. “You have the biggest heart of anyone I know. How could I ever blame you? For anything?”

I think of the sensitive content of the series, how hard I have to work not to let emotion cloud the impartiality that being a good reporter demands. Earlier today, I spent the afternoon interviewing the mission’s director, a heavyset woman named Melissa. She looked into my eyes and practically begged me to protect the organization from the very developers Ryan works with—­builders hungry to throw up cheap apartment buildings, displacing the lifelines for hundreds of homeless people in the process.

True, Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood is a bit on the seedier side, and development could bring new life to its streets, but Ryan painted a grim picture of a place I loved so long ago and still do. Anyone with a heart for the down-­and-­out could see that the plan to overhaul the neighborhood would not only close the doors of the Hope Gospel Mission, it would entail demolishing thousands of low-­income units and two shelters. As such, property developers, many of whose financial outlooks Ryan manages, remained in gridlock with the city of Seattle.

“I guess I just like it the way it is,” I say. “The neighborhood has an old Seattle feel. It’s gritty, I know. But it’s real. And it’s home to so many people.”

“Didn’t you used to live down there?”

His question is one I would rather not answer, so I busy myself refolding the napkin in my lap.

“No,” I finally say. “But I used to know someone who did.”

I don’t tell him that over the years my curiosity about that someone has gotten the better of me, eaten at me like a cancer at times. I squeezed the marrow out of Google. Cade, it seemed, had not only left me but had possibly left the face of the earth. But that is all in the past.

Ryan raises a suspicious eyebrow. “And who is this someone?”

“No one,” I say, eager to change the subject. I’m as uninterested in speaking about my past love life as I am in hearing about his, especially the woman he dated before me: Vanessa, the Southern belle whose father and Ryan’s were blue-­blooded best friends and real-­estate moguls with connections on the East and West Coasts. She was a shoo-­in to be Mrs. Ryan Winston until I stumbled into his life and ruined their collective plans. Imagine the look on their faces: “Mom, Dad, this is Kailey. I love her. And she has a tattoo!”

When I tried to wrap my head around the situation early on in our relationship, Ryan was direct. “You know as well as I do that Vanessa and I were best suited as friends,” he said. “We grew up together.”

“And she’s still in love with you,” I replied without missing a beat.

Ryan shook his head. “No, she’s not.”

“Ryan,” I said. “I’m a woman. I saw the way she looked at you in West Virginia.” She had been with her family at the Greenbrier for the annual extravaganza Ryan and his family and friends have taken part in for generations. The men golf, and the women lunch. I survived the ordeal by conning a sympathetic waiter into spiking my sweet tea with bourbon.

Ghosts, as Tracy calls these youthful loves. We must not let them haunt.

I look over at my handsome fiancé as he straightens in his chair. Yes, we come from different places and see the world in different ways. He challenges me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But what informs our past stays there. Ryan is my present. I am grateful that our once-­separate paths have converged, brought us here together. Tonight. Forever. Always.

“I love you so much,” I whisper, sliding my arm across the white tablecloth to hold his hand.

“I love you, too,” he says with an intensity that I swear I can feel in my soul.

As he speaks, rain splatters the window. A full moon shines behind a tiny patch of clearing in the sky, trying desperately to emerge from its cloudy cloak. A supermoon, Tracy said. A physician with a quirky penchant for the mystical, she has talked nonstop about some astrological eclipse that is apparently taking place tonight. And though I have no interest in astrology, I secretly love her daily reports. Somehow I can stomach the woo-­woo when carefully curated and sifted by my best friend.

And now I wonder if Ryan’s edginess can be blamed on the metaphysical. The thought lingers as I take another sip of wine, silky and peppery at the same time. I hear the telltale crackle inside the glass and a memory surfaces. Like always, I tuck it away, far away, where it belongs. I’ve long since stopped feeling the ache in my heart that I lived with for so long.

I may not have had closure, but I have tasted wisdom. Anyone who has ever had their heart broken, or even just bruised, has learned that there’s finality in the facts. He left. And I’ve realized that when someone wants to leave, you let him go.

Ryan refills my wineglass and begins telling me about his day. He modestly recounts an incident when a coworker fell asleep during a meeting with the company president. Events could have turned dire, until Ryan surreptitiously set off his cellphone alarm, waking his sleeping colleague in the nick of time. My eyes crinkle with emotion at his kindness. My face melts into a smile.

“I’m happy,” I say unprompted. The words leap from my mouth, or maybe my heart. I can’t keep them in. “You make me so happy.”

“Me too, baby,” he says.

My cellphone buzzes, alerting me to a new voicemail, but rather than check it I tuck it into my purse.

Ryan winks and waves his hand to summon the waitress; she appears at our table a moment later. “Can I get a negroni?”

“Yes, sir,” she says, turning back to the bar.

We share the salmon and duck-­fat potatoes and an order of the prawns. “They’re a little spicy,” Ryan says, taking a bite, “don’t you think?”

Ryan has an adventurous palate, a necessity for the fiancé of a food enthusiast, and yet unlike me he doesn’t tolerate the taste of heat. I swear I nearly gave him a third-­degree burn on his tongue the first time I made him breakfast. The Tabasco I’d whisked in with the eggs for an added kick didn’t go over so well. Lesson learned.

“Want to order something else?” I suggest, but Ryan tells me he’s happy to watch me enjoy the food. We talk about the wedding. Our gazes drift off to separate corners of the restaurant during the occasional lull in conversation as each of us pauses in turn to consider a key detail that would never have occurred to the other. We’re a complementary pair. It’s comfortable and nice, the way life is with Ryan, the way it will be for a lifetime. I finish another glass of wine, drinking in the feeling of contentment.


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