Authors: Kate Stayman-London
“I’m afraid of putting him on television.”
“Because he’s so young?”
Asher shook his head. “Linus is gender nonconforming. He still uses he/him pronouns, and I don’t know how he’ll come to identify—for now, I’m following his lead. He loves to wear dresses, tutus, glitter, all of it. He’s a human ray of sunshine. But the kids at his school …”
“There’s been bullying?”
“In the past, yes. His teachers have always been great about working with me to make school a welcoming place for him, and so have the other parents—we’re lucky to live in a really inclusive town. But to open him up to the rest of the country, to subject him to all the horrible things people say online?”
“I know something about that,” Bea said quietly.
“I know you do.” Asher’s voice was strained. “So you can understand why I’m so hesitant to bring cameras into our home.”
“Maybe this is stupid,” Bea murmured, “but do you think this could be a way for you to show Linus that you’re not afraid to tell the world how proud you are of him? That you think he’s perfect just the way he is?”
“That doesn’t sound stupid at all,” he said softly. He took Bea’s hand, and her heart swelled with affection for this new side of him she was discovering.
“It’s funny,” Bea said softly, “the way you form impressions of people. When we first talked on the boat, I thought you were such a snob.”
“You weren’t totally wrong on that one,” Asher deadpanned, and Bea laughed.
“Then at the museum, I started getting a better sense of who you are, and I started falling for you,” she continued, “but I didn’t know this huge thing about you, that you’re a dad—and a sole caregiver at that.”
Asher looked down. “I should have told you sooner.”
“No”—Bea squeezed his hand—“that’s not what I’m saying. What I mean is—you keep surprising me. And the more I learn about you, the more I want to learn about you. I know what a big deal it is to meet your kids. And I want to get to know them, to see what they’re like. But also, I can’t wait to see what
like with them. To get to know another new part of you.”
He pulled her closer to him, and she snuggled against his chest as he wrapped his arms around her.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this—for me to meet them, I mean?” she asked, pulling away to look him in the eye. “I’ll understand if you aren’t.”
Asher met her gaze, his expression firm. “Bea, my readiness depends on yours. This isn’t just about meeting my kids—it’s about what comes after. With me, having a family one day isn’t some dim hypothetical; it’s a present reality. So especially considering what your visit could mean for Linus, the real question for me is, are
“You’re right,” Bea agreed. “That is the question.”
“And what … is the answer?”
Bea shook her head. “I can’t know for certain, Asher. Not yet. Believe me, I wish I could.”
“I understand. But can I ask something of you?”
“Of course. Anything.”
“Give it some thought before the ceremony tonight. And if you think the answer is definitely no—or even probably no—send me home.”
“That feels impossible.”
“To me too,” he said, hugging her close.
She buried her face in his scratchy sweater, breathing his scent, all pine and wool, and he ran his hand along her jaw, tipping up her chin so they could look at each other. He kissed her face, and then her mouth; he pulled her closer and closer until there was no space left between them, until all their questions and doubts were drowned out by the roar of the falls.
By the time they made it back to the
dusty and drained, Bea wanted nothing more than to eat some couscous, crawl into bed, and go to sleep, but that wasn’t in the cards: After a frustratingly brief shower, she had a consult with Alison about which gown to wear to the kiss-off ceremony, another two hours in hair and makeup, and an hour after that of recording direct-to-cameras about how difficult this decision was going to be—all the while genuinely worrying about what she was going to do.
To make her decision even tougher, all five of the men had recorded video messages for her, which she was made to watch on camera to capture her reactions. First was Sam, his jubilance completely infectious, his infatuation with Bea totally obvious.
“Bea! I haven’t seen you in two days, which is the worst!” He looked dramatically from side to side, as if to make sure no one was watching him, then leaned in close to the camera. “But I’ve spent the entire time thinking about kissing you in the hammam, which was the
“Marin was right about him,” Bea murmured with a little grin.
Next up was Luc, stunningly handsome in a plain white T-shirt, looking straight into the camera with his smoldering eyes.
“My Bea, this week I have seen a new side of you, I think. Thank you for trusting me, for showing me your softness.”
He gave her a little smirk, and Bea felt a wave of nausea. Luc had thought this would be a private reference, but because of his unseemly brags to Asher, every single person watching would know he was talking about their night together. That night had felt like the foundation of a fragile trust between them, but now she found herself doubting every word that came out of his mouth. But the question remained: Was she sure enough that he was lying about his intentions toward her to send him home, despite the fact that she had more chemistry with him than any other man here?
Then came Asher’s video, which was perfectly Asher: “Bea, per our discussion, I know what a difficult decision this is for you. I hope you’ll decide to continue to pursue our relationship.”
It would be easy to write him off as cold or unfeeling, but Bea was starting to learn how to read his subtext, to see all the things he didn’t say, to trust in their connection and in him. Letting him go was unthinkable—but she owed it to him (and his children) to think about it all the same.
The fourth video was Jefferson’s, and Bea felt a twist of uncertainty when she saw his face.
“Hey beautiful,” he said with a grin. “I had so much fun today, and I can’t wait to introduce you to my family—and everything you’ve been missing with that KC BBQ! But on a more serious note, I also want to say, Bea, you and I just make sense together. I felt it from the second I saw you—didn’t some part of you feel it too?”
Everything Jefferson was saying was true—sweet, even—so why did it make her uncomfortable? Was she really getting in the way of her own happiness, as Jefferson (and Marin, and her mother) had suggested? Or, on the other hand, was she simply trying to convince herself to have feelings for a man who looked the part of a husband for a woman like Bea? Maybe she and Jefferson just needed more time together to cement their bond—but if what he wanted was a wife and family in Kansas City, and Bea could hardly see that for her own future, was it even worth the effort?
Then again, Wyatt lived on a farm in Oklahoma, which was even more foreign to Bea—but she couldn’t deny the surge of joy she felt when his face appeared onscreen. Her feelings for the other men were so fraught and complex; with Wyatt, she just felt happy.
“I missed you this week.” He beamed. “Morocco’s very beautiful. Did you know you can eat camel meat? I tried a camel burger. So that was … different! Anyway, I hope your week was great, and I hope you decide to come visit my family on our farm. We have a tractor that I think you’re really going to love.”
Bea still had far more questions than answers about Wyatt: Did he want a relationship at all, let alone one with her? Did she want a relationship with him—and would having one actually mean moving to Oklahoma? But no matter what the answers to any of these questions were, one thing was certain: Of all the men left, Wyatt made Bea feel by far the most safe. And she really, really wasn’t ready to give that up.
“So?” Lauren came in after the videos were done playing. “Do you know what you’re going to do?”
Bea nodded. “I think so.”
“And you feel good about your choice?”
“No! I feel nauseous and exhausted and like it’s entirely possible I’m making the wrong decision.”
“Good.” Lauren smiled. “That means you’re right on schedule. Let’s roll!”
She led Bea into the
’s living room, where all the furniture had been removed, and her five suitors awaited her in a semicircle.
“Hi, guys.” She smiled, pushing through her jitters. “How’s your jet lag? You ready to head back home and confuse our bodies all over again?”
The guys laughed amenably, and Bea was struck by how few of them there were. This week’s lip color was Don’t Wine About It, so Bea readied herself to leave a deep berry stain on the cheeks of four men to whom, against all odds, she’d grown very attached.
“Sam?” she called, and he strode toward her with a brilliant smile. Bea had some input as to which men would stay, but Lauren always determined the order in which she called them. After their night in the hammam, it was no surprise that Sam had rocketed to frontrunner status.
After Sam came Luc, who rested his arm possessively at Bea’s waist as she kissed him on the cheek. Bea bristled at this—she hated the idea that Luc was actively trying to make the other men jealous, but at the moment, there wasn’t much she could do about it. It would be easier next week, she reasoned, when the men were all in their separate hometowns, not cooped up together in one house day after day.
“Wyatt,” Bea said next, and she felt a rush of reassurance as he broke into a soft, easy smile and stepped forward to give her a huge hug.
“I’m so happy you’re coming home with me.”
“Me too,” she assured him after she kissed his cheek.
Once Wyatt stepped aside to join Luc and Sam, that left Asher and Jefferson. Bea looked from one man to the other and took a deep breath.
“Asher and Jefferson,” she said, “I want to thank both of you for how open you were with me today in the mountains. You’ve both made me think about the role of family in my life, about what I want that to look like, and what I’m ready to take on. This wasn’t an easy decision.”
She looked over to Johnny, who took his cue to give his regular speech before the final name was called.
“Okay, guys, Bea is about to choose her final suitor. If your name isn’t called, you must immediately leave the
. Bea, whenever you’re ready.”
Bea inhaled—she wasn’t sure she was ready at all. But either way, it was time.
“Asher,” she said, and the relief that washed over his face was palpable.
“You scared me,” he whispered after she kissed his cheek.
“Back at you,” she said, and he hugged her tightly. The truth was, Bea wasn’t totally sure she was ready to be a mother—but she knew she absolutely wasn’t ready to say goodbye to this man.
“That’s it for this week’s ceremony,” Johnny pronounced. “Jefferson, take a minute to say your goodbyes.”
“I’m sorry, Jefferson.” Bea delivered the speech she’d rehearsed with Lauren in what she hoped was a consoling manner and not a condescending one. “I really appreciated our time together today, and I’m so happy I got a chance to know you better. I just think our visions for our futures are pretty different—but I know you’re going to make an amazing husband for whatever woman is lucky enough to become your wife.”
She hated the awkwardness of dismissing only him, especially since he’d been so sweet to her. But she couldn’t deny how much closer she felt with the other four men.
“Can I walk you out?” she asked, conforming to Lauren’s dictates. She was meant to accompany Jefferson to the
’s entrance, say a brief—and hopefully emotional!—farewell, then see him off as he got into a car that would take him to the airport and out of Bea’s life forever (or, at least, until the reunion show).
But Jefferson didn’t seem very interested in acting according to plan. He was shaking slightly—maybe with laughter?—his eyes hard and narrow.
“Are you kidding? You think you can do better than me? Trust me, Bea, I’ve never had a problem getting a girlfriend—and none of them have ever looked like you.”
Bea shook her head in confusion. “No, I—Jefferson, it’s not a matter of better, it’s about what I want for my future—”
“And what you want is to go live on a farm in Oklahoma? That’s your dream? Please, Bea. You’re a fat hypocrite—I guess that’s half a revelation.”
Bea stopped cold. “I’m sorry, what?”
“You heard me.” He stalked toward her, taking his time, savoring that all eyes were on him. “Now that I’m out of the competition, I guess I can finally be honest with you—good thing, too, since no one else has been.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked, her voice unsteady.
“What I’m talking about, Bea, is the fact that none of the men in this room is remotely interested in you. Least of all me.”
Bea shot a glance over at the other men, but Jefferson kept going.
“Sure, they talk a good game, but you’ve never seen them without the cameras rolling. You have no idea the horrible jokes they make about you, the way they laugh at your expense. How could you? You’re so desperate for love that you’ll believe any nice thing a man says to you. It’s sad, Bea. And it’s probably pretty great television. But at some point, you’ve got to wake up and face the fact that you are the only person on this show who actually believes that any of these men could fall in love with you.”