“You have got to be kidding me!” Finley Blake was wearing a hole in the flatweave Berber rug she had bought during her last assignment in Morocco. That trip had brought a lot of changes, not the least of which was Max.
“You just had me book my flight. Last night, in fact!” Her voice reflected the agitation she felt. Her shoulders were creeping up to her ears. Her jaw was moving back and forth—a sure sign she was upset. “So where am I off to now?”
Finley was back home in Manhattan, talking to Dan Burton, her editor at Traveler’s Tales, a high-end travel magazine that had been giving her freelance work for the past several months, ever since her first “48 Hours in…” article. That article focused on the exotic wonders of Casablanca, complete with descriptions of all the best food, shopping, and historical sights that could be absorbed in two days.
The success of the Casablanca article, and the eye-catching photos that had accompanied it, ensured that work would be steady for a few months. Dan kept printing her stories, both the short “48 Hours” pieces that she had done on Fes, Barcelona, and Tangier, as well as some more in-depth reporting on Sienna, Dubrovnik, and Bruges that she had done just a couple of months ago.
Truth be told, Dan was more than her boss. He was also her friend—he had been, in fact, since their early law school days. They often used to sit together in class because of their last names, Blake and Burton, and had remained friends over the years. They both also abandoned the law long ago and took up other careers: Finley in consulting and Dan in journalism. When Finley decided to leave the consulting firm where she was a senior partner, Dan was the first person she called.
Dan had brought her on Traveler’s Tales provisionally at first, but the sales-worthiness of her stories and photos earned her a regular slot. Dan would have loved to hire her on the permanent staff, but Finley wanted the freedom to pick and choose which assignments she took. And that was what had her so riled now.
The original assignment she had opted for would have taken her to India for a piece on preserving the cultural heritage of tribal peoples from Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha. Finley would get to see Max, who was now in Delhi. Their relationship was a complicated one that had started years ago during an earlier stint in Morocco. It was interrupted for almost three years after that because of a profound misunderstanding that had nearly broken them both.
“If we hadn’t reviewed the assignment and all the travel logistics just yesterday, I wouldn’t be having this reaction,” Finley continued. “But I literally booked the flight, hotel, and driver last night because I thought everything was a go.” Finley knew that this was only a half-truth. He doesn’t have to know the real reason I’m pissed. I told Max I was coming. I really want to see him.
“I know, but I have a new staff writer coming on, and we’re shifting the focus to Delhi, which is an easier story. We’ll hold off on your story for another issue.” Dan could hear the frustration in Finley’s voice. And while she didn’t talk about her personal life much, he had seen how devastated she was four years ago when she returned to New York. How she had thrown herself into her work to fill the void created by the loss of something precious.
Dan had met Max socially before, when all three of them used to work in Manhattan. He knew then that Finley and Max had been close in Tangier all those years ago and that something had happened, but he never found out what had caused her to come home so broken. What he did know was that when she returned from Morocco this time, some eight months ago, whatever hurt there had been was healed and she readily spoke Max’s name.
“I need a more experienced writer on this story, and I think you’ll do it justice.”
“Don’t start buttering me up,” Finley’s voice was tight, but she masked a smile. “You know I can still refuse it and sit this one out.”
“I don’t think you’re going to want to, though.” Dan could tell she was warming up to the new potential location, even without knowing where it was. “It’s politically complex, and you’ll know how to balance the perspectives and still get travelers to want to go.”
“You going to tell me where it is or just keep me guessing?”
“You want to guess?”
“No, just tell me so I can say no.”
“You’d say no to Sri Lanka? As I recall, you called it ‘paradise on earth.’”
Finley was quiet. As much as she wanted to say no, she knew Dan had her trapped. She sighed and then let out a small laugh.
“I give up. You got me,” she said. “I can’t say no. When do I leave?”
Dan explained the Colombo focus of the assignment and reviewed the logistics.
“I managed to swing a bit of budget. But—” Dan started.
“—don’t expect it every time,” Finley finished. Dan always said that, but still managed to find money to fund her assignments. She wasn’t hurting for money. The buyout from the consulting firm was generous and positioned her well for the future. Still, why pay for things out of pocket when someone else was willing to cover the cost up-front?
It was still midafternoon when she hung up with Dan. She was dreading the call to Max, so she put it off. The less she thought about it, the less she would be filled with that longing for Max that she had been suppressing for months now.
Once, she saw Max in New York for two weeks. He had arranged to meet a potential client there instead of in London so that they could spend some time together. Besides that, there was one long weekend in Barcelona when she was working on a story about the rise of tango bars in the city. She and Max took a class and danced a tanda or two at Centro Gallego de Barcelona, never progressing to the faster-paced milagro. That was almost two months ago.
Instead of calling Max, she speed-dialed her sister, S. Whittaker Blake, known to all as simply “Whitt.” Or Half-Whitt. I haven’t called her that in years. Whitt lived in Manila most of the time, but because she worked for a development bank, she was on the road more often than not. Finley and Whitt saw each other a couple of times a year back in the US when Whitt had home leave. In between, they tried to work their travel schedules so that they could meet somewhere equidistant to wherever they were working. Morocco was a bit out of the way for Whitt last time, who had been on her way to meetings in Tbilisi, but it proved to be a worthwhile trip in so many ways.
“Hello? Whitt Blake,” Whitt had her work voice on today.
Finley laughed. Her little sister was all grown up. Whitt was almost six years younger and had settled into her career as a Young Professional at the bank. She was also settling into a relationship with an incredibly handsome young entrepreneur named David, who was building export relationships with wine and walnut vendors in Georgia.
Whitt had met David a year ago through mutual friends in Tbilisi, and they had been together ever since. He had had a hand in Finley and Whitt’s adventures in Morocco—and he stuck around to see how things with Whitt might play out. Finley had to give him credit. He was made of stronger stuff than what she had imagined when Whitt first started talking about him.
“Hey, what are you up to?”
“Not much. Just doing revenue projections for that same microfinance project that I’ve been working on for months.” She tried to sound frustrated that the project was taking so long to get structured, but Finley knew she was glad to be in Tbilisi as long as David was there. “When do you leave for Delhi?”
“I don’t,” Finley said and heard her sister take in a breath. She’s probably waiting for curses or tears. Let’s see how long she holds her breath waiting for me to start screaming. Finley waited.
She stared at the early rush-hour traffic that was building up on Amsterdam. The double-paned windows muffled the honking and noise of an impatient city. Pedestrians wove in and out of the stopped cars, taking advantage of the suspended animation to hurry home and take their kids to ballet—or to make it to a nail appointment. Welcome to New York.
Whitt chose her words carefully. “Is your trip delayed?”
“No, canceled. The assignment was given to a new writer,” Finley looked away from the window and paused.
Whitt was quiet. The silence was heavy. Finley could imagine Whitt’s brow furrowing, and her hand moving slowly to release the mouse and pick up her ginger tea from the mini warming plate. I should put her out of her misery. She’s thinking too much. Her brain is going to explode trying to figure out what to say that won’t put me in tears.
Finley continued, “I got Sri Lanka, instead. Mainly Colombo.”
“So you can still see each other,” Whitt exhaled finally and smiled to herself. She has been missing him so much. Max has probably been going through the same struggle. They are such a confusing couple.
“Yeah, but I haven’t told him about the change of plans yet. I’ll deal with it tonight.” Finley would catch him before he headed to work—Delhi time—just after his run.
“As long as you can see each other, he’ll be fine. And Colombo is just a short flight from Delhi.”
“How’s David?” Finley suddenly wondered if he was sitting right there. He might be if she was working from home. “When do I get to see you guys?”
“He’s fine. In a meeting downtown,” Whitt said. “I was wondering—when you said Colombo—if you wanted to exchange the trip to Uzbekistan for more time in Sri Lanka.”
Whitt had given Finley a trip to Central Asia for her thirtieth birthday that she still hadn’t redeemed. Finley loved her sister’s taste in gifts: either really expensive pieces of jewelry or trips to faraway places. She loved both, so the surprise was always there no matter what Whitt chose. “We didn’t have time to explore Galle or much of the south last trip,” she continued.
“Can you get away on such short notice?” Finley asked. “I know you must have the time saved up, as hard as you work.”
“I think I can. Just one small hurdle in the numbers.”
“David coming too?”
“Nope, I’ll leave him here,” Whitt said lightly. “You know, absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.”
Finley tensed. That doesn’t sound good. Wonder what’s up? She’s making a joke of it, but I don’t think it’s intended to be funny. Her sister played the tough cookie as her public persona, but she was a softie who was pretty closed with her emotions. She could be bleeding inside and still make some cavalier comment to deflect the pain. You never could tell for sure. Maybe it is time for some girl talk.
“Sure. Let me get this story out of the way, and then we can have some fun.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Surprise me. Only request is that we do Yala again.”
Whitt had planned the last trip to Sri Lanka, even though it was Finley’s graduation gift to her. There had been so many places that Whitt had wanted to see in the northern and central parts of the country that Yala was the only concession they made to go south. They started in Colombo, and then headed to Kandy to see the Temple of the Tooth shrine, before heading to Dambulla to wander the Buddha caves and to take a quick tour of Anuradhapura.
They hadn’t gone further north to Jaffna due to reports of political unrest. Instead, they headed southwest to Polonnaruwa, an ancient city dating back thousands of years, with a quick stop in Sigiriya to climb Lion’s Mountain. The panoramic view from the top of the 200-foot outcropping—which had purportedly served as both an old monastery and a palace—was surreal. Whitt said she could imagine a king looking out on this vista every morning, knowing that all that his eye could see was his kingdom. They ended that trip leopard spotting in Yala.
“Galle OK as our launch point?” Whitt asked. “Great gem shopping.”
Finley smiled to herself. Whitt always had a nose for the best shopping in town, and this trip would be no different. Without David there to carry packages, Finley knew she would serve the role of Sherpa. Thank goodness that gems were small and light!
“Works for me. Got to go. Another call coming in, but I’ll talk to you soon. Love you.”
“Me too,” was all she heard as the call dropped, and Mooney’s face appeared on her screen. Mooney Allen was one of her dearest friends. They met in New York after Finley had returned from Tangier the first time. Mooney had been a lifeline back during that time and remained a trusted confidant.
“Don’t forget drinks tonight.”
Finley screwed up her face and cursed under her breath. Mooney made it her job to ensure all her friends got out and enjoyed the fabulous happenings in the city. She was especially mindful of Finley’s tendency to pull on her sweats, order in Thai or Lebanese food, and curl up with a book for days on end.
Mooney knew about Max and wanted to help Finley figure out what she wanted from that relationship, but she also hated for Finley to waste opportunities and miss seeing “what else was out there,” as she was fond of saying. In particular, Mooney wanted Finley to at least consider Logan Reynolds, a slightly older, very successful entrepreneur, who was attractive, rich, and above all, “FOF”—fond of Finley.
“You forgot,” Mooney continued reproachfully. “That’s why I called. In fact, I’ll come pick you up in forty-five minutes.”
Before Finley could protest, Mooney had clicked off. Finley sat looking at the phone. She stuck out her tongue at Mooney’s picture before it faded and then put down her phone. I don’t want to go out. I don’t have anything to wear. She was glad she hadn’t tried that excuse on Mooney. Mooney would have simply swooped in thirty minutes early and torn Finley’s closet apart putting together killer outfits for the night.
Finley moved to the closet to see what she could piece together for drinks. She didn’t feel like getting dressed up, but if she didn’t make an effort, she would have to deal with Mooney’s mouth all weekend and into next week. And she wanted—needed—to focus on getting ready for Colombo, scoping out ideas and angles for a story, and figuring out what to take. Mooney might be useful with that.
By the time Mooney arrived, Finley had rummaged the closet for an outfit and turned up with only a pair of black skinny jeans, a black cashmere turtleneck, and some dressy black boots. Granted the boots were Jimmy Choo’s from three seasons ago, but she had to admit that she could just as easily have gone grocery shopping at Dag’s as gone to drinks at Cork in this. She grabbed a pair of large Berber earrings and some bangles when the doorbell rang.
“I’m trying to decide whether I like it or not.” Mooney had stepped in and then held Finley at arm’s length to determine whether she approved of what she was wearing.
“I haven’t done my hair yet.” Finley pulled at the hair tie that was holding her mass of curls back. She had kept it pixie short for almost four years but was now letting it slowly grow out. It wasn’t to her waist as it had been years ago, but it had grown down to her shoulders and was thick and heavy.
She headed to the bathroom and finished her makeup before she started detangling her curls with her fingers. The hair around her temples and brow fell into soft tendrils that framed her face. She added a bit more blush to meet the delicate wisps that played close to her dark green eyes and then added a pop of brick-red matte lipstick to break up the blackness of her clothes.
“You know, I love that on you.” Mooney was standing at the bathroom door, watching as Finley put the final touches on her makeup. “It isn’t me, but it is so understatedly you.”
The contrast between them was indeed marked. Finley in her black-on-black outfit, alligator-green eyes and matte-red lips—the only flashes of color—and Mooney, all brightness and light with her ash-blond tresses catching the beams from the hall and reflecting it back in her crystalline-blue eyes. Finley smiled at their yin-yang looks. She grabbed her long Kashmiri-embroidered duster, cut the lights, and they were out of the door.
Cork was surprisingly quiet for a Friday night. Mooney had called ahead to reserve their usual high-bar table toward the front window, but she really didn’t need to, given the slow crowd that was there. It might have been the cold dampness in the air. It was February after all. Goodness, I will be glad for Colombo’s warm weather. Humidity, I can take. Anything but this cold.
Their table was starting to fill with friends from Mooney’s work, as well as Finley’s former consulting firm. Even though many had left to go to other positions in the city, they had stayed tight friends and looked forward to catching up over drinks each week with people that knew them well enough to just enjoy their company without judgment. Finley valued that when she had come back from Tangier the first time, licking her wounds.
“Love those earrings!” Lydia, Mooney’s roommate and Finley’s former classmate from law school, was reaching over the narrow table to hold the thick pendant dangles to the light. “Where’d you get them? And don’t tell me some place exotic!”
Finley reached up to touch the etching on the earrings, trying to remember where and when she had gotten them. When her fingers traced the intricate hammer work on them, she smiled, remembering well that they had come from Max and had been a gift from this last trip in Fes. Whitt and David had left by that point, and Max accompanied Finley to Fes for her final segment of the Moroccan assignment. He had purchased them there without her knowing and then presented them to her as she was getting on the plane in Tangier to head home.
“Don’t open this until you’re in the air,” he had said, pressing a small woven bag into her hand as she stepped toward security.
She was well into the second hour of the flight before she loosened the black cord on the brocade pouch and unwrapped the earrings. They matched the silver beadwork on a necklace he had given her years ago, when they first met. The Berber symbols etched on both signified endless time.
“In Morocco,” was all she said.
“Speaking of Morocco, I still owe you dinner.” Someone had come up behind her, slipped an arm around her waist and kissed her cheek. It was Logan. “When you left for Morocco last year, I promised you a raincheck for dinner, and you haven’t called it in yet.”
Mooney watched Finley’s face to see how she was going to get out of this one. Finley and Logan had been out several times before Finley and Max reconnected. And they had continued to hang out together over drinks, like tonight. But Finley had put off his recent attempts to get her alone, especially over an intimate dinner. As much as she liked him as a friend, even if there had been no Max, she probably wouldn’t have seriously dated him. But now, there was a Max.
“You do indeed,” Finley acknowledged. She was going to have to handle this carefully since he was one of Mooney’s clients.
Finley was saved from having to further commit by a former colleague who called her over to look at pictures of her baby. By the time she returned to her stool, everyone was deciding where to go for dinner. They settled on Rocco’s, a steakhouse in the Flatiron District, and the group began piling into cabs for the short trip downtown. As fate would have it, Logan put Finley into a cab and then hopped in beside her.
“So where do you want to use your raincheck? The world is your oyster,” Logan said as the cab entered the long line of traffic heading south on Fifth. “You name the place. Just the two of us. Anywhere in the world.”
Finley knew that he meant it. If she had said she wanted steak frites in a Paris bistro in Saint-Germain-des-Prés—or even sushi in Ginza, Tokyo—Logan would have scheduled his plane and whisked her off for dinner in France or Japan, even if it was one that she could easily have gotten in New York. She smiled at the privileges that wealth could bring.
“I’m going to have to think on that for a while,” Finley said. “I leave in a few days on another assignment, so I’ll have a couple of long plane rides to contemplate where I want to go.”
“You’re leaving me again? Where to now?”
“Colombo for a couple of weeks. And then further south with my sister.”
Logan turned to face her, smiling slightly. “Any other guy would think that you’re trying to avoid me.” He paused. “Are you?”
Finley returned his look and answered honestly. There was no point in not being direct and truthful. “No, I like your company. You’re an exceedingly interesting man, but I think we both know that I’m not interested in you.”
She straightened in her seat, turning her gaze forward and matching her smile to his. “And if you were truly honest, you would concede that it isn’t me that you want. It’s the chase you like, not the catch!”
Logan opened his mouth to speak, shut it, sighed, and then burst into laughter. “You got me! Until you said it, I don’t think I realized it myself. Touché!”
He lifted her gloved hand from her lap and held it in his. Theirs was going to be a long and complex friendship. The stuff of legends. They continued the rest of the trip in companionable silence. The cabbie glanced in his mirror a few times, shook his head, and turned up the radio.