At Sydney’s prompting, Haze tries her luck at online dating. She agonizes over creating her profile and how to answer all the questions, firmly avoiding anything that smacks of desperation. Once she takes her profile live, she learns there is a surprising amount of interest. She stays up late into the night sorting through the men who popped up, which solves nothing. She goes to sleep more confused than ever.

Haze paused by the front door to take one more peek in the mirror. She sighed. “Well, it’s as good as it’s gonna get.” She grabbed her keys and headed out for her first date with a man she met online. It was a whole new experience and she was ridiculously nervous, but could not quite grasp why.

It wasn’t as if she hadn’t prepared. She finally managed to get in that trip to Parkway Salon, which did wonders for her self-esteem. Her hair was a pleasant shade of brown with natural golden highlights, so she didn’t want to mess with that, but by taking several inches off and adding layers, she gained volume that worked perfectly with her natural waves, transforming her hair into a fluffy mane. She refused to leave without buying the curl-enhancing product the talented stylist used. It smelled of coconut, lush plants and tropical waterfalls. She got a pedicure while she was at it, choosing a summery coral nail polish. She got a manicure, but skipped the polish for her hands—what was the point for an artist?

Her date was vetted by the best: Sydney and two of her most discriminating friends over a pitcher of margaritas. It was no surprise that Sydney kept varied company—not just those who attended her Heathen’s Holidays. Suzanne, a local life coach, was wise, funny and had all the right questions to ask. Chanel, an advertising executive, was a transplant from New York, who provided a no-nonsense, gritty view of every man Haze was considering. It was Sydney’s idea to turn it into a party—insisting on serving some of the dishes she had perfected while in isolation. So, they munched on Sydney’s homemade empanadas with fresh tomatillo salsa, slurped fishbowl-sized margaritas and huddled over Haze’s laptop, ruthlessly rating the top 10 contenders for her first date.

In the end, the choice was unanimous: Jake, a 33-year-old carpenter/organic gardener from Golden. He’d never been married, likes animals—especially alpacas—and included “abstract outdoor art” in his list of hobbies. Between the alpacas and the art, they were sure to find something to talk about. He was ruggedly good looking in his photos—outdoorsy, with a charmingly crooked smile. Sometimes he wore a beard and his hair was a little tousled. The photo that sold him was one shot in his garden, down on his knees, coaxing a wild rabbit out of the cabbages. He was wearing blue jeans and flip flops. The sun was shining down on his sun-streaked hair and he was smiling. From that photo alone, Haze knew she could fall for a guy like that.

Inspired by Sydney’s experimental Mexican cuisine cooking phase, she suggested they meet at Maya’s Cantina for a casual date. Happy hour on the patio seemed harmless and friendly. Haze wore a copper-colored knee-length, flowing sundress—one of her favorites—with a jeans jacket in case it was cool in the shade. Not one for too much makeup, she applied blush, mascara and a touch of tinted lip gloss. She was counting on the beauty of her hair to carry the look. She chose flat sandals to show off her new pedicure and was pleasantly surprised by how it all came together.

It was a short drive to Maya’s from her house on the lake. Hell—she could walk. As she sat in the driver’s seat, she realized it would be smarter to do just that. So, she ditched the car keys inside the door, pocketed a house key and headed out on foot. It was a beautiful day to follow the path around the backside of the lake. Then, she descended the stairs and waited at the crosswalk. She could see Maya’s patio from that spot and spied a man sitting alone, facing the opposite direction. It was impossible to tell if it was him or not from that angle, but he appeared to be the right age. The walking symbol flashed, and she crossed, her confidence building. By the time she reached the patio a few minutes later, Haze had a sunny glow to her cheeks and a ready smile for the handsome man waiting at the table. He stood to greet her, flashing that crooked smile. Holding her hand, he kissed her cheek casually, like they were already old friends. It was in that moment that Haze realized she had no reason to be nervous. She took the seat opposite at the tall table.

Before they could utter a word beyond “hello,” the waitress appeared to take their drink order. Jake leaned forward, tipped his head, and asked, “How do you feel about margaritas?” Charmed, Haze leaned in too, “I am pro-margarita, especially today!” He smiled at that, revealing laugh lines around his eyes. Haze exhaled. As he spoke to the waitress, she took in his clothing: a short-sleeved, buttoned shirt in a hue she could only describe as ‘happy blue.’ He was wearing jeans and casual brown shoes. Around his right wrist was a bracelet of braided leather cord with several silver bands. He fidgeted with it unconsciously.

As an icebreaker, Haze said, “That’s an interesting bracelet. Is it significant?” He looked down at his wrist. “Oh this? I forget I’m wearing it.” He stretched his arm across the table so she could see. “It was a gift from my dad.” He flipped the bands around to reveal initials stamped on the surface. “Each one has the initial of one of my family members.” The waitress interrupted with the margaritas and he pulled his hand away to make room. Jake lifted his glass and Haze followed suit, “To meeting a new friend,” he said. “Wait—make that to meeting a beautiful new friend.” Haze smiled, touched her glass to his, and took a sip of the strong, tart drink.

They chatted easily and laughed, ate too many tortilla chips, and drank margaritas for hours as the sun sank lower in the sky. She learned that he grew up in the country surrounded by animals and that he fell in love with alpacas when he volunteered at a shelter. He had an easy way of storytelling and a soothing voice. When she spoke, he listened attentively, and his eyes brightened when she talked about her art. Eventually, they circled back to his bracelet and its meaning.

“As I said, it’s a gift from my dad. He gave one to all of us kids—there are six of us.” He paused when she reacted by nearly choking on a chip. He laughed, “Oh, I didn’t tell you that? Yeah, my parents really wanted a big family. So, each band has the initial of our first names. There are two Js, one for me and my twin sister, Jessica. He twisted them around to show her. B is for my big sister, Barbara; the C is for Charlie, the oldest; the A is for Alan, who is second to the oldest. This K is for Kendra, the baby.” He twisted the last one around. She leaned in close. “And this one,” he said, revealing it had a single heart stamped into the silver, “…this one is for my mom,” he said in a quiet voice. “My dad gave these to us all when she died so we would remember that we are all connected by her love for us.”

Surprised, Haze covered her mouth. “That’s so beautiful,” she said. “I’m sorry. When did she die?”

“It’s been almost 10 years,” he said. “But for my dad, it might as well have been last week. I don’t know if he’ll ever get over it. He loved her with his whole heart.”

“That’s sweet,” Haze said. “Sweet and incredibly sad at the same time.”

Jake touched her hand. “Sad? Maybe, but I like to think of it as a life lesson.”

Haze looked thoughtful, “What do you mean?”

“Well, my dad chose my mom. He might have lost his heart forever when she died, but before that, he had the love of a lifetime. It’s a lesson on how to do it right.” He shrugged apologetically. “I certainly spilled my guts, didn’t I?” He looked suddenly shy.

Haze shook her head. “I asked. I wanted to know and you told me. I’m glad I asked.” She looked into his handsome face. “It’s a beautiful tribute to your mom and says a lot about how you were raised. The fact that you actually wear it says a lot about you.”

They looked at each other, not smiling, not talking. It was the perfect moment for a first kiss, right there at dusk with the twinkle lights overhead. They both felt it. Jake leaned forward, pulling her by the hand. She leaned toward him, eager to know what kissing him would be like, when somehow, some way, that action overturned a nearly full margarita glass. Instantly, cold margarita splashed onto the table and into Jake’s lap. He shouted and jumped up.

“Oh no!” Haze said, jumping from her seat. Arms out, he looked down at his wet lap. Haze grabbed a napkin and handed it out to him. She was apologizing over and over. Jake was shaking his head in disbelief when suddenly, he threw his head back and laughed. It was a genuine, hearty laugh and contagious. Shocked at first, Haze stared, then she laughed too. It started as a giggle and grew into real stomach-bracing, breath-stealing laughter. Other patrons stared and giggled too. When Jake snorted trying to catch his breath, it only spurred more laughter. And Haze fell a little in love.