Lee’s Restaurant was packed, but they found an empty table at the back, with a view of the busy kitchen. The place was in the middle of Chinatown, noisy and crowded, and if Ashe had hoped for some privacy, then he was in for some major disappointment. Unfamiliar with the specials, he let Riley do the ordering while he watched a man in the back room making the noodles.
“They make the very same noodles you’ve got in front of you,” she said after the waiter brought the food to their table. “I hope you don’t mind that I just went ahead and ordered the specials.”
“This was an excellent idea.”
Riley shrugged. She wasn’t so sure whether hand-pulled noodles in the middle of Chinatown could beat the Michelin-starred fare at the posh hotel they’d just left. But after the night she’d had so far, she didn’t care what he thought. She was in the mood for noodles, and as far as she was concerned, he was tagging along.
She pointed out the dishes she’d ordered for both of them, which filled their small table completely. She had ordered Special # 2 for him, which was noodle soup with slices of chicken, shrimp, beef and a whole fried egg, all sitting in a steaming vegetable broth while she ordered her favorite, mixed beef and hand-pulled noodle soup, complete with vegetables and a side order of dumplings. She also ordered two beers, Tsing-Tao, which was the only brand the place carried.
“I’ve told you a lot about myself,” Riley began. “Now it’s your turn. Is your name really Ashe? I’m sure it’s so posh it’s spelled with a silent ‘e’ and probably stands for Ashley or something.”
“It does have a silent ‘e’ though it’s far from posh,” he said, unable to continue speaking because he was currently slurping a noodle that didn’t seem to have an end. When he was finished, he’d managed to get broth all over his chin. “What kind of a name is Riley?”
“It’s just a name my mother picked out. Nothing special,” Riley said. “Your turn.”
“Alright,” he replied in a flawless Southern drawl that came out of nowhere. “I’m named after the common ash tree. Irish folk considered it sacred and all, and the Norse, well, they called it the Tree of Life.”
Riley stared at him, her mouth hanging open. “How’d you do that? And please don’t do it again,” she said, holding out her hand. “I was just getting used to that posh accent of yours.”
He laughed. “Do ya like it? Could I pass for someone from, say, Alabama?”
“I’m sure you could,” Riley said. “I thought it was good, but then I’m no expert on Southern drawls—just Southern Comfort. Ha ha. But is this a habit of changing accents meant to impress unsuspecting dates?”
“Are we on a date?”
She blushed before directing a frown at him. “You have this way of deflecting questions, you know. It’s starting to get annoying. But no, we are not on a date.”
“It’s a terrible habit—imitating accents,” he said, giving her his best puppy dog impression, which made her giggle. “And no, I don’t do it to impress my dates.”
I don’t think you need to do much to impress anyone, looking and sounding the way you do, Riley almost said out loud but managed to stop herself from actually uttering the words. He was dangerously handsome, and she wondered now whether he was someone famous.
“Is this a hobby, then?” She asked. “Some people do impressions while you do accents.”
He shook his head and slurped a noodle into his mouth, more gracefully this time while plucking a piece of chicken from the bowl with his chopsticks.
“I have a dialect coach,” he said, his English accent returning.
“It’s for a role,” he answered. “I’m the first choice because I wrote the screenplay, but there’s someone else they’re also considering because he can sing much better than I can—even if we’re probably just going to lip-sync to the songs. I’m not as good as, say, Hugh Laurie, whom many people think is American after seeing him in House. But he’s a Brit. Fry and Laurie.”
“Noooo! Really?” She laughed, giving him a shocked expression before scoffing playfully. “Of course, I know Hugh Laurie is a Brit. But back to you—is that why you’re over here? To audition?”
“Auditions are over though there’s still more to do when it comes to finally getting the role—contracts, legalese and certain personal issues like co-star choices,” he said. “But that’s not why I’m here. I’m doing press for a movie that comes out in theaters in a week.”
He was about to add something else but stopped himself as a young woman came toward their table and stood in front of him, about three feet away. He swallowed a piece of scrambled egg he’d just eaten and wiped the corners of his mouth before acknowledging her.
As Riley watched, Ashe flashed a controlled smile that didn’t reach his eyes and listened to whatever the woman was saying. She was holding her phone in her hand, and Riley realized that she wanted her picture taken with him. A selfie.
His face clouded. He glanced at Riley and then back to the young woman, flashing her an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, but I’m in the middle of dinner, luv. Maybe later when my friend and I are finished with dinner, I can pose for you outside.”
The woman glanced at Riley, frowning, but Ashe continued to flash her his perma-smile. He was good, Riley thought, as his smile seemed to melt the woman’s initial hostile reaction. She walked away, but not before taking a picture of Ashe anyway, the sound of the camera shutter barely audible above the din of the noodle shop.
“So I guess this is where I ask you if you’re famous,” Riley said. “It’s not every day that my dinner companion gets photographed on the streets of Manhattan by passing tourists, or approached at a restaurant while he’s slurping a noodle.”
“Does it bother you?”
“There you go again,” Riley said. “Answering my question with a question.”
He smiled. “But you didn’t ask a question. You were wondering out loud if this would be the time to ask me if I’m famous.”
He shrugged his shoulders. He’d stopped eating, and Riley wondered if being recognized had somehow ruined his appetite. “Fame is relative. That woman may have recognized me, but then many others in this restaurant haven’t.”
“So you are famous,” Riley said. “Does it bother you that some people don’t recognize you?”
He shook his head. “No, and in fact, I prefer they didn’t. That way, I get to eat my noodles in peace and not worry about somebody taking unflattering pictures of me as I eat. Hopefully not with a noodle hanging from my mouth.”
“I’m sorry,” Riley said.
“It’s not your fault that some people can’t help themselves.”
Riley took a deep breath. The conversation seemed to drag his mood down. The smile was completely gone. “So, do you like it? Acting?”
“I do, yes,” he replied, the smile returning to his face. “I’ve been doing it now for the past ten years or so.”
Three giggling teenagers walked past them, and Riley thought they were about to line up in front of him and ask for autographs. But the teenagers were more engrossed in what was on their phones than the people around them and had settled themselves at the next table.
“Is this the part where I’m supposed to ask you what shows you’ve been on?” Riley asked.
He chuckled. “This is the part where you get to ask me whatever you want.”
Riley took a deep breath and thought for a moment. What would she ask, she wondered? She wondered if it bruised his ego, meeting someone who had no idea who he was. Perhaps Gareth felt the same way when someone didn’t recognize him. Back then, no one did.
“People usually answer questions more truthfully when they’re under pressure,” Riley said. “So now it’s rapid-fire question time. I’ll take the first answer that comes to mind. Ready?”
Ashe frowned as if he didn’t understand what she meant. But Riley didn’t want to give him time to think. He could improvise if he had to, lie if necessary.
“Morning person or night person?”
“Night person,” he replied, a smile forming on his lips.
“Are you funny?”
“Do you consider yourself serious then?”
“Unfortunately, yes. In fact, tonight, someone just called me an old fart.”
“If you could be any cartoon character, who would you be?”
“Pepe La Pew.”
Riley giggled, imagining him batting his eyes like the lovable skunk.
“You’ve got to keep going, Riley, or it’s my turn to ask questions,” he warned. “And I have to warn you—I don’t take prisoners.”
“If one song were to describe your life, what would it be?”
“I Don’t Want to Miss A Thing.”
“Aerosmith! That’s my favorite band! And did you know that they’re playing in Atlantic City—”
“Next question or it’s my turn,” Ashe warned, arching an eyebrow.
“What do you like best about your job?”
“Being someone I’m not—for a time.”
“What don’t you like about your job?”
“That you’re only as good as your last movie.”
“When did you last get laid—No! I mean, when was the last time you lied? Lied! Lied, not laid!”
Ashe chuckled, then forced himself to be serious. “Just before I got into that elevator with you.”
“Was that an answer to the first question or the second?”
“Second,” Ashe replied, his eyes never leaving her face.
Riley blushed. Goodness gracious, his eyes. And his voice. She focused and cleared her throat, serious again. “Do you see yourself in ten years’ time still doing the same thing you’re doing now?”
“Yes, but I’d like to produce more, too. Even direct. After all, what’s hot in Hollywood right now may not be so hot next year, or in five, or ten years.”
“You never know,” Riley said. “You could still be hot. I mean, look at you! You’re hot right now, so why not in ten years?”
“If I’m really that hot, then how come you don’t know who I am?”
“Just because I don’t know who you are doesn’t mean I don’t know real-life hot from not.”
This time, it was Ashe who paused before his face broke into a broad grin, his blue eyes twinkling.
“You’re good—even though you did get distracted for a moment, but that was entirely my fault,” Ashe said, taking a sip from his beer. “Debate team in school?”
His eyes narrowed. “Auctioneer?”
“Definitely not,” Riley replied, laughing.
“I give up. What?”
“I have three smart-aleck nephews and, whenever they’re around, you need to have your game face on all the time. They’re relentless. And you?”
“I’ve only got one niece, so obviously I can’t compete with three.”
His phone beeped, the third time since they had sat down though he’d ignored every single call or text message throughout dinner. Riley remembered how it had beeped in the cab as well, but he hadn’t answered it that time either. But this time, Ashe pulled out his phone from his jacket pocket and glanced at the display.
“Is that your manager, by any chance?” She asked.
“Yes, it is. And she’s wondering—in full caps, no less—where I am,” Ashe said and began typing a message on his phone. “I’m not supposed to leave the hotel.”
“You’re in big trouble then.”
He drew a deep breath and took another sip from his beer. “You could say that. She’s probably a nervous wreck right now. But then, she always is.”
“Are they sending a car to pick you up?” Riley asked. Ashe made a face but didn’t answer her. “I gather that’s a ‘yes,’ then. Well, I need to get going anyway.”
Despite Riley’s insistence that she pay for dinner, Ashe took care of the bill, and together they stepped outside. Riley shivered, a cold wind ruffling her hair. They looked up at the sky, shrouded by thick clouds.
“It’s going to rain,” Riley said, rubbing her forearms. “It must remind you of London.”
He shrugged. “Just because I’m English doesn’t automatically mean I’m from London.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Riley chuckled. “The posh Englishman who’s not really posh!”
“Right, but you’re right about the clouds—just not London,” he said as his phone beeped again. This time, Ashe excused himself and answered it.
Riley tried not to eavesdrop, but it was difficult not to. Ashe had such a deep voice it was easy to hear what he was saying. He was in Chinatown, he was telling someone. Of course, he was fine. Why wouldn’t he be? He’d only been trapped in the elevator for half an hour, no big deal. He was in good company at the moment and didn’t need any help. But he told his caller that he was standing outside the restaurant, in case they were racing through Manhattan to rescue him.
Riley glanced at her phone, too, checking the time. It was half past ten, and she needed to get back home. As Ashe turned to face her, she gave him a mock salute. “Well, thanks for joining me for dinner, and for talking me off that ledge of getting back into bed with the ex.”
“You talked yourself out of it long before I met you,” he said, slipping his hands into his jeans pockets as he walked toward her.
“You still made me feel better about what I would have ended up doing—or rather, not doing, for that matter.”
“Why would you feel anything but better about it?” Ashe asked, frowning. “Did you want to see him again?”
“Him? No, I mean, I had a few questions for him, but in the end, it wasn’t worth it.” Riley exhaled. She had to go. “Anyway, it was nice meeting you, Ashe. Dinner was fun.”
“Thank you, Riley,” he said. “But it’s late. I can have the driver take you home.”
“No, thanks,” Riley said, shaking her head. “I’ll take a cab.”
“Can I call you sometime?” he asked, taking another step toward her.
She stared at him, unable to believe her ears. She would love to give him her number, but then what? He’d just be another Gareth, only this time, he was already at the top of his game, whoever he was. Gareth had been a nobody back then. She’d paid for everything just so he could go to his acting classes and his auditions, and Riley never complained because she loved him.
Three years later, she just might not be over Gareth at all if she ended up dressing in the skimpiest dress she owned and buying a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes—on sale—that would probably end up returned or never worn again, all because he sent her a text saying he missed her and could they talk.
You always fell for his lines, Ri, her older sister Paige had told her more than once. That’s why he’s an actor. What other job gives someone the perfect excuse to lie?
No wonder Riley had stopped watching movies the moment Gareth left her three years ago.
“I had an excellent time, too,” Riley said, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. “But suppose I don’t give you my number and say that I did. Or let’s say I did give you my number, and you lost it, misplaced it, or maybe deleted it by accident. It happens all the time.”
“That would be lying, and I hate lying. But I understand what you’re saying,” Ashe replied as thunder rumbled overhead and a large drop of rain fell on Riley’s nose. “Are you sure you don’t want a ride home?”
“I’m sure,” Riley said, just as a limousine stopped right in front of Ashe and an older woman with long blonde hair leaped out of the rear passenger door, calling his name in a panic. Riley took that as a sign to move on and so she waved goodbye and turned away, just as the skies opened up.