an excerpt from my latest release, book two from the Warriors of Ameraulde series.
MAY 1984; STANFORD, CA
My Tam checks her hair and makeup in the mirror. She is as ready as she can be. Her speech is complete, and it is almost time to go. She glances at her notecards one last time and tries to calm her nerves. Attending Stanford University was a dream come true, and graduating summa cum laude is the icing on the cake. Making a speech at the ceremony is over the top. Her parents are beaming with pride.
Her father’s restaurant business is doing well, and he now owns three, all successful, with a fourth location under consideration. His success gives his children options and a head-start on meaningful careers. He often gently lectures her about privilege, and how fortunate they are as Vietnamese immigrants, to live in America, wonderful land of opportunity.
She has little memory of early childhood. Her parents adopted her when she was five, and she grew up in California, working alongside her mother in the family restaurant. Her memories are a blur, but she remembers the nice man and woman…the couple who brought her to America. She also remembers some soldiers, but not their faces; her parents told her how some brave men saved her and brought her to them. She doesn’t think of her parents as stepparents, they are just Mom and Dad. They feel the same about her, and never show any difference between her and the other children. They stress higher education, and her two brothers and sister are all accomplished in their own lives. The oldest, her brother Chi, is their father’s business partner. The popular, thriving restaurant chain was simply named Nguyen’s, after the family surname. The younger of the two brothers, Dinh, is a pediatrician in Los Angeles, and her sister, Khanh, is an attorney in San Francisco.
She lifts the gold necklace from her nightstand. The unusual necklace has a Gaelic-looking cross in a circle, more like a medallion than a woman’s jewelry. The young man who saved her from her war-torn village in Vietnam, sent it to her when she was a little girl. At least that is what her Mom told her. She remembers bits and pieces…of being carried away, the soldiers, and the nice couple. She remembers Paul’s smile and knows his first name because she has the signed note that came with the necklace. She receives additional gifts from him at every life milestone. A tiny ivory elephant, an ivory Buddha, or sometimes just a card with money. Always signed the same; So proud of you! Your friend, Paul.
Her Mom knocks, “Tam, are you ready?” It is funny hearing her Mom call her by her nickname. Her friends all call her Tam, and her Mom resisted at first, but now uses it too. “I’m ready, Mom,” she calls through the door.
Anh Nguyen is a striking woman, even more so when dressed for a special occasion. She is still turning heads at fifty-five! She enters the room and closes the door. “A package arrived for you,” she says smiling. “Wow, Mom! You look great!” My Tam exclaims. “Thank you, daughter. You look beautiful too,” Mom replies, blushing from the compliment. They hug, and Tam asks, “What is the package?” Anh hands her the small box, and Tam notices the postmark from Paris, France. She instinctively knows, even expects it to be from Paul. But his gifts were from Thailand, so the Paris post arouses her curiosity. She opens the box and it is a stunning bracelet, with small engravings of Buddha, an elephant, and three monkeys. The monkeys are in the hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil pose. Between the engravings are tiny diamonds. Tam knows they are not fake. Engraved on the inside of the band is an inscription, To Tam…From Paul. There is a note with the gift and Tam reads it to her Mom,
“Hi, My Tam. Congratulations! I am sure your parents are exploding with pride. I am too! So proud of you! Your friend, Paul.
“Look, Mom, it’s beautiful and unique,” she says. “Yes, it is Tam. This young man always remembers you,” Anh replies. “He has a good soul.” Tam slips the bracelet on her wrist and says, “I’ll wear it today.” The two women hug again, and Anh says, “Hurry now. Your father and the family are waiting.” When her Mom leaves, Tam sits on the edge of her bed and admires her new jewelry. In the inscription, he uses her nickname. How does he know it?
She stands, takes a last glance in the mirror, and joins her family downstairs. This is a big day for them too. After the graduation ceremony, they’re having a party in her honor, at the original Nguyen’s restaurant. Her father invited some business associates, and this is as much his moment as her own. She blushes at the thought of all the attention.
“There is my beautiful, smart, baby girl,” exclaims Mr. Nguyen. Henry Nguyen, who goes by the American name Henry since opening his restaurant, thinks it is better for business if he has an identifiable American first name. So rather than Hung Nguyen, he became Henry Nguyen. “Look at my handsome Dad,” Tam says smiling. “We’d better keep an eye on all those college girls today. They’ll be flirting with this hunk!” Anh adds, “They haven’t heard his snoring.” The family laughs at her joke and Henry’s face reddens. Chi says, “We’d better get moving. We’ll need to take multiple cars, so who is riding with who?” Chi and his wife, Mary, have two children and only have room for one passenger. Dinh and his wife, Sarah, have one child and are riding with Henry and Anh, so no space there. Khanh speaks up, “Good. My Tam rides with me. Girl power!” That being settled, the family convoy departs for the graduation ceremony.
On the short drive, Khanh brings up the subject. “I know you and Dad fought over your grad school choice. He was the same way with me before I moved to San Francisco, and I’m not even that far away from him.” My Tam and Henry had argued over her selection of graduate schools. Her choice of Johns Hopkins, and moving across the country to Baltimore, Maryland, did not please him. “Plenty of good schools right here in California,” was his opinion. Ultimately, he supported her decision, but Tam knew it was hard for him. She replies, “Well, you know Dad. He doesn’t like change and wants to keep all of us close.” Khanh laughs, “Don’t I know it? I thought he was going to have a stroke when he found out I was moving to San Francisco.” Tam looks at her sister with a twinkle in her eye and asks, “So…is there a Mr. Wonderful in your life yet?” “Shut up,” Khanh sticks out her tongue. “For your information, I have not been looking, but when I find him, you’ll be the first to know.” Tam grins and the two of them say it at the same time, “Gần mực thì đen, gần đèn thì rạng. Tell me with whom thou goest, and I will tell what thou doest.” They burst into laughter for repeating what their Mom often said to them growing up.
They arrive at the campus, find parking, and rejoin the family. Tam leaves to gather with the other graduates, dodging all the picture takers to keep from photo-bombing their shots. She notices the handsome young man watching her as she approaches the graduate entrance to the building. He is well-dressed and looks tan and fit; she would describe it as rugged masculinity. “I don’t think I know him,” she thinks to herself, but flirtingly gives him a smile. He smiles back and a voice calls her name, “Tam, over here.” Her friend and fellow graduate, Natasha is waving excitedly. “Our big day! Can you believe it?” Tam responds with a big smile and hug, and says, “I know! You are coming over to our party, right?” Natasha says, “I’ll stop by, but I can’t stay very long.” As the two girls enter the building, Tam looks back, but the man is gone.
The graduation ceremony, in Natasha’s words, was “too long and too boring.” The girls laugh at her summary of the keynote speech, given by a big shot from the Rockefeller Foundation, as “blah, blah, blah. And let us not forget, more blah, blah, blah.” My Tam asks, “What about my speech?” Natasha remarks playfully, “Your speech was good, girl. Totally normal.” “Thanks,” Tam answers, then adds, “Not too much blah?” Natasha chuckles, “Nah, just the right amount,” and the girls howl and giggle at their humor.
Tam finds the family waiting for her, and the congratulations, hugs, and picture fest begin. Henry breaks it up and says they need to get back or they will be late for their own party. As Tam and Khanh walk to the car, Tam says, “This party is more for Dad, I think.” Her sister says, “It is. He was that way with all of us. This is his moment to show you off, plus you’re the last. Well, until grad school is over, anyway.” As the car pulls out of the parking lot, she sees him again. Just watching. She starts to say something to her sister but does not. It feels weird but is probably just a coincidence.
Nguyen’s is already bustling when they arrive. Henry grabs My Tam by the arm and makes sure she says hello to everyone. He is so proud, and he works the room like he’s at a business conference. All the congratulatory comments make Tam smile inside. It is just like the scene in the movie, The Graduate, where Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ben, receives all the advice from his parent’s associates. When the party enters the final stage, and the guests are gone, Khanh joins her at a table. “So sister, how did you like your party?” Tam says, “It was fine. I’m glad it is over.” Khanh then asks, “I have an idea. Why don’t you come to San Francisco this summer and stay with me? I’m sure Mom and Dad won’t mind. It will probably be our last chance for a while to do anything like that. At least come for a few weeks. It will be fun.” Tam shrugs, “Sure. It beats working in the restaurant. The Nguyen girls going wild in Frisco! Sounds like fun.” Khanh grins, “OK, let’s plan it. Are you ready to go home?” My Tam says, “Yes. Let’s go.”
On the ride home, she tells her sister about the good-looking guy watching her, and Khanh says, “Probably a stalker. Better watch out girl. There’s crazies out there!”
When they get to the Nguyen home, they change into comfy clothes and lie together on Tam’s bed. She shows Khanh the bracelet and her sister says, “Do you ever wonder about him? It seems so strange how he never surfaces, yet always thinks of you. It’s both sweet and creepy at the same time.” Tam thinks before speaking, then says, “I do think about him sometimes. It seems exotic, wherever he is and whatever he does. I mean, I know nothing except he rescued me as a little girl and sends me gifts. Who is he?” Her sister grins mischievously, “I think he’s your stalker.” Both girls laugh and Tam replies, “Well if that is Paul, he’s fine!”
Anh enters, “What’s so funny you two? Not really expecting an answer, she continues, “The party was very pleasing for your father and me. I hope you enjoyed it too.” “Oh, Mom, it was great. I had a good time.” Khanh says, “Hey Mom, we were talking about Tam coming to San Francisco this summer to spend some time with me before the start of school. Do you think that would be alright with Dad?” Their Mom smiles and says, “Leave Henry to me. He will say it is OK.” The three laugh together over the unspoken conspiracy and know Anh can get Henry to do whatever she wants.
That night, after everyone had gone home, she thinks about Paul and the man she saw. She drifts to sleep and dreams about him. In her dream, they are dressed as if attending a formal occasion and are dancing to the music of an orchestra. She smiles in her sleep.
Both this book and the prequel (Warriors of Ameraulde) are available for purchase on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I am grateful beyond words to all of my readers.
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