We can hardly wait for the release of Love Buzz (May 2, 2023) by Neely Tubati Alexander—so we couldn’t wait to get our hands on this cover reveal and exclusive first chapter! Praise by New York Times best-selling author Allison Winn Scotch as “a sparkling debut,” this serendipitous adventure stems from a chance romantic encounter during a wild Mardi Gras bachelorette party, and touches on love, grief, family, the road not taken.
A wretched maid of honor. A hangover from hell. Raucous Mardi Gras crowds. There isn’t much Serena Khan is enjoying about this four-day New Orleans destination bachelorette party for her semi-estranged cousin, the bride-to-be. UNTIL sparks fly with a handsome stranger, who—like her—is also from Seattle, at the ladies’ last stop of the evening, a Bourbon Street bar. After their conversation is cut short, Serena is overwhelmed by the desire to find the charming man with the brooding eyebrows, but her list of clues is pretty short:
His name is Julian
He lives on Chamber Hill
He works at a tech company
He loves Lil Wayne and Nirvana
The need to find him is, for Serena, both irresistible and totally irrational. In a few short weeks, her college alumni magazine is featuring her in a “Life at Thirty” feature, cementing her as a success story. She will have officially achieved the safe, stable life her late mother insisted upon. Julian is not part of the plan.
As she combs Seattle for her New Orleans flame, stripping away the perfectly curated life that would have made her mother proud, Serena must decide if the pursuit of real passion is worth it, and fast, before she destroys the life she always thought she wanted.
In a sharply funny, thoughtful, and romantic debut combining the wistfulness of Rebecca Serle with the witty sizzle of Emily Henry, Neely Tubati Alexander prompts us all to ask if the life we’re living is a life worth loving.
About the Author: Neely Tubati Alexander is a first-generation Indian American mother of two. Originally from the Seattle area, she seeks to tell lighthearted, female-driven stories with diverse characters and strong women who pursue both love and careers. If she’s not tucked away at the little desk in her bedroom writing, you can find her at some kiddo activity, drinking wine, or watching reality TV, usually the last two together. She lives in Arizona with her family.
Read on for an exclusive excerpt from Love Buzz—and can you believe this gorgeous cover?!
Mandatory attendance at a bachelorette party in New Orleans during Mardi Gras is a special kind of torture. The bride is my cousin Coral, and though I’m happy for her (genuinely, so happy), I can’t say I’m overjoyed about being abridesmaid.
For one, Coral’s new best friend and maid of honor, Melody, an attorney, seems to think we all possess the sameblasé attitude she does when it comes to spending money. The truth is, despite sav- ing almost fifty percent of my paycheck each month, I don’t believe spending four hundred dollars on a chartreuse bridesmaid dress is at all reasonable.
Chartreuse. The color of tennis balls and unhealthy mucus. But I can’t say that.
Because I don’t want to ruin Coral’s big day—especially when there already lies so much unsaid between us. And I certainly don’t want the judgy lawyer look from Melody, the person who has replaced me as best friend. So I bought the four-hundred-dollar dress. And the one-hundred-fifty-dollar shoes. But I drew the line at the two-hundred-dollar hair and makeup package for the wedding day, thus justifying Melody’s disdain of me.
What I really want to say is that had Coral let me pick the brides- maids’ dresses, I would have opted for a more universally flattering shape of some kind, instead of the mermaid monstrosity that draws unwanted attention to my hips. But because Coral and I are not as close as we once were and my Auntie Lakshmi likely forced her to include me in the wedding party—
I can’t say that either.
Instead, I’m drinking and laughing and playing games like Dick Pic Bingo (a Melody contribution to the “fun”) while pretending this trip isn’t thieving from my hard-earned savings.
I make a mental note to delete all the penis pics from my phone before I land back home tomorrow.
But at least it’s the last night.
I’ve navigated my way through four days and nights of weather extremes—freezing in the morning, sweltering by mid-afternoon. I’ve endured the stench of mold and spilled liquor that makes me wonder if I’ll still detect this city on me long after I’ve left. And there’s been more alcohol consumption than I’ve had over the last year. I’ve already researched effective detox strategies for when I get home.
There has been some good thought. I’ve had the opportunity to take in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras, and though the constant crowds have spotlighted how much I value personal space, this place is alive with history, excitement, and culture. I’m particularly drawn to the mysticism and folklore, stopping to admire each voodoo shop we’ve passed. In these sparse moments, the decaying smell of the city floats around me like a perfectly placed prop. This part has me enamored. This and the beignets.
But I’m not here on a lazy vacation where I can wander the streets and peruse the shops for hours. I can’t consume slices of king cake while leisurely sipping café au lait. And I can’t stand on the street corner to watch the parade floats drift by, admiring their detail and scale against the backdrop of riotous live horns. No, I’m at a bachelorette party, where my experiences are confined to the inside of every bar on Bourbon Street and the scores of girls (and guys) gone wild on the streets outside them.
On this last night of bachelorette debauchery, Melody has unilaterally proclaimed we must go out with a bang. We’ve all been ordered to don the most revealing outfits we’ve packed (mine—a pair of black leggings and a plain blush pink crop top—was not up to snuff per Melody’s hypercritical glare), and we are under strict orders to collect as many beads as physically possible to bestow upon Coral at the end of the night. So far, I’m losing, with one measly purple strand handed to me by a waiter attempting to lure patrons into his bar, so it hardly counts.
So here we are, at the last bar of the last night per Melody’s itinerary. She’s planned every second of this trip, down to the bathroom breaks. The fact I haven’t shit on command during her slotted times is probably adding to herdeep distaste for me. We’re at some bar with Bourbon in the name, just like the last three we’ve patroned.
A few more hours and this torture will be over. And if I can make it through this night without Coral puking on me—which has already happened twice on this trip—or me erupting on Melody, I’ll consider it a win.
The five other girls are all dancing atop the bar. Melody is wearing hot-pink mesh underwear under her black leather mini skirt, and there are currently four men positioned at the bar, all staring up said skirt. I thought lawyers weresupposed to be conservative. Not Melody.
Coral is wearing a bra top and holey, wide-leg jeans and is currently wobbling from her perch on the bar. I’m wondering when she will puke again because it has become a question of when, not if.
Leaning against the back wall, I watch them bend and swat each other’s butts, making mental bets with myself about who will be the first to fall. I secretly hope it’s Melody.
My phone buzzes. A text from my best friend, Clarence: Two months until you are a Seattle legend! I hope you survive the night . . . try not to slap the Handmaid of Horror, er, maid of honor. I breathe deep. Just what I needed, a reminder of my impending thirtieth birthday and the “Life at Thirty” feature I’m to be showcased in. I think to tell himit’s technically ten weeks, but don’t want to discuss it further. The sheer mention of these upcoming events sends a pulse of adrenaline through me as I type my response. I really wish you were here. Still mad you found a way to back out. Clarence is the only bridesman and the only member of Coral’s wedding party who is not here in New Orleans. He somehow managed a “required work conference” for the same weekend. I expect receipts when I’m back. I don’t notice his approach, but suddenly there is a guy by my side trying to be heard over the music, though I can barely make out what he says.
“Chest for beads!” is what I hear.
“Excuse me?” I say, debating whether to raise my knee to his groin.
He leans in closer. “I said, are you not into flashing your chest to a room full of horny dudes for shitty plasticbeads?”
I really look at him then. His warm brown hair is tamed with gel, though it appears to be just barely working, like his hair may spring from its delicate trap at any moment in all directions. His thick brows hover incredibly close to his eyes, as if they are all the same feature, giving him a brooding quality I am decidedly attracted to. My dark brows are the opposite, highly arched and meticulously sculpted; the time investment alone makes it the first feature I notice on others.
“Shitty plastic beads that are probably full of lead,” I add, interest piqued.
He leans against the wall beside me, mimicking my position, then lifts his leg to place his foot against the wall behind him. As he does, the music transitions and I hear the screech of the sole of his light gray canvas shoe being ripped from the stickiness of the floor. I try not to think about what particular combination of filth has created said sticky substance below our feet.
“Yes, those.” He motions his beer bottle toward me and I look down at the lone strand of shiny purple beads around my neck. “So if you didn’t show your chest, dare I ask how you got ’em?”
“Who said I didn’t show my chest?”
He raises his eyebrows and his cheeks glow pink and he looks for a moment like a preteen boy having aconversation about boobs. He keeps his eyebrows raised and now it feels as though he is calling my bluff.
“I didn’t show my chest for them,” I admit. He releases the strain of his eyebrow ridge. “A waiter took pity on me and my bare neck.”
My words cause him to look at my neck, which makes my neck suddenly very sensitive to the air against it.
“Want me to take them off your hands? For health purposes,” he asks.
“You’d have to earn them,” I say. “This is Mardi Gras, after all.”
He kicks himself off the wall and turns to face me. It’s then I notice just how much he towers over me.
“I have to earn the shitty, lead-filled pity beads?” The corners of his mouth lift playfully.
“Well, they are a hot commodity.” I take a sip of my watered-down vodka soda as he contemplates a response. We look at each other for a long moment, and I feel myself flush as I notice the dark speck in the green of his right iris just below the pupil. I say a secret thank-you to the manager of this bar for ensuring the lights are not so dim that I might miss this detail about him.
“Okay. What do I have to do to earn them?” He’s still yelling over the music, though somehow this part sounds like a whisper in my ear.
“Show me your tits!” I yell through the megaphone I’ve made around my mouth with my hands. The corners of his mouth tug positively wide, leaving space between his teeth and where his mouth ends. It is perhaps the most adorable thing I have ever seen, in complete opposition with his brooding eye line. I think of videos of puppies and kittens and baby chicks rolling around together.
He sets his drink down on the table beside us, grabs the hem of his shirt with both hands, and lifts his gray Nirvana tee to his neck. I want to respond with a catcall or whistle but am instead rendered silent as I take in his torso—tanned, lean, cut. My eyes linger on the happy trail that disappears into the waist of his jeans. Happy trail, indeed.
“Well deserved,” I say when he releases his shirt. He positions it back in its place as I lift the string of beads over myhead. I hold them out in front of me but instead of taking the strand, he bends down so I can place the beads around hisneck. The soft bristle of his hair against my hand sends goose bumps up my arm. This close, I can smell his peppery cologne. Spellbound, I inhale, sure his pheromones are gripping in my nose, my throat, my lungs.
A warning sensor goes off inside me, though I fight to ignore it. “I feel like this was all a master plan to show off that chest and stomach,” I say. He smiles again, and I almost laugh at how endearing it is.
“Depends. Did you find it charming or douchey?” “Douchey, definitely douchey.”
“Okay, then definitely not planned. Not at all.” He smiles again and I’m worried I’m staring at his face too much,though I can’t seem to stop. “I’m Julian,” he says, extending a hand.
“Serena.” I move my hand toward his, realizing the odd nature of our interaction—that I’ve seen his bare chest before learning his name.
The second our palms meet, my nerves begin to dance and blood rockets around inside me like a thousand bouncy balls in a concrete box. The sensation makes its way down my body, settling between my legs. My eyes involuntarily flick down to the same area on him. I blame this city; all the nipples I’ve seen these past four days have turned me into an ogling pervert.
“Serena,” he repeats, calling my eyes back to his. Our hands are still intertwined and the warmth and size of his feels like I’ve slid my fingers into a mitten fresh from the dryer. We have stopped the shaking motion of our hands, though they are still locked together. So now we are standing there, holding each other’s hand between us, which I am sure looks quite odd should anyone be watching. A new beat hits and the crowd screeches its approval. I look over to find Coral, Melody, and the rest of the bridesmaids gyrating on the bar with impressive force. I worry Coral may throw her back out. “Ah, Lil Wayne, a Mardi Gras legend,” I yell as “Back That Azz Up” roars around us.
“It’s actually a Juvenile song featuring Lil Wayne, but Lil Wayne is from New Orleans, you know, so it does kinda fit.” I look up at him. “Why do you know that?”
He hangs his head as he smirks. “From my love of Lil Wayne, of course.”
I look down at our hands, still connected. I can’t seem to manage to pull away first. As if reading my mind, he releases my hand.
“Where are you from, Serena?” He has spoken my name twice now, each striking me like an electric current. He shoves both of his hands into his jean’s front pockets, his beer bottle abandoned on the table beside us.
“Seattle,” I say. “No shit, me too.”
“Really? What part?” I ask. “Chamber Hill. What about you?”
My cheeks heat. Usually, I say Seattle because people outside of Washington only largely know Seattle. And if you say Washington, I’ve learned on this trip, people tend to think you mean D.C. “Technically I live in Bellevue.” We live thirty minutes away from one another and somehow we’re meeting at a bar in New Orleans, making it all the more exciting.
“No shit,” he says again, still gazing at me. He reaches for his beer and takes a sip, licks his lips afterward, and I blush again. Or am I still blushing? Those lips of his are intensely red, like they’ve been stained by Hawaiian Punch.
“What are you doing at Mardi Gras, Serena?” he asks. It’s like he knows I feel a rush of heat each time he says my name.
“Raging, of course. Isn’t that the goal?”
He leans back against the wall, and I follow suit. His arm lightly brushes mine and I savor the soft, feathery sensation. We look out at the crowd of people, shoved in and pressing against one another. I am sure this place is breaching its maximum occupancy. This far end of the room where we stand tucked next to the emergency exit, our only salvation.
I glance over to the bar again, where Coral and the others are still putting on a show. Coral looks as though she’s about ten minutes from puking. The crowd peeping up Melody’s skirt has grown to seven.
“I don’t know, I kinda think my goal is to be that guy.” Julian leans in and points his beer bottle toward a booth in the corner and my eyes follow to the lone man seated in it. He looks to be in his late sixties, maybe early seventies. He’s wearing a Tommy Bahama–type shirt unbuttoned low enough for one of his silver-haired nipples to be poking out.
First the glimpse of Julian’s chest and now this. So many nipples at Mardi Gras, just not the kind I expected to see.
The man’s arms are slung over the top of the booth back, and he’s staring at the group of girls dancing in front of him like he’s trying to decide which chocolate truffle to devour first from a big heart box. “Oh god,” is all I can offer. Julian laughs. My chest warms with satisfaction at having made him laugh. “In that case, you’re gonna have to work on your chest hair situation, because from what I saw, you have a lot of catching up to do.” I motion up and down him with my drink.
“And I need to go shopping. I don’t own anything with flamingos on it. Or leaves. I suddenly, desperately need a shirt with flamingos and leaves.”
“Maybe you can get a discount if you tell them you don’t need the top half of buttons,” I say.
“That’s a good tip.” He takes another sip from his beer, then looks at the guy in the booth once more. “Do you think the nipple out is intentional? Is this some kind of new trend I’m unaware of?”
I smile as I turn to face Julian again. “Maybe it’s some kind of mating call to those young girls.”
The corners of his mouth lift as he nods, still assessing the man in the booth. As he does, I steal a glimpse of his eyes again. Solid green at their edges, transitioning delicately to a light hazel toward the center. I attempt to committhem to memory. It’s as though they should be held—those eyes—gripped under light, turned this way and that, to experience how they might come alive in new ways with each slight movement.
“The shame of it is that his nipple is out—like fully out this whole time—and nobody is giving him any beads. I feel bad for him.” Julian leans in as he talks, the heat of his breath warming my ear.
“You could give him yours,” I say, pointing to the purple strand around his neck.
“No way. I traded my body for these. It’s my lead,” he says, palming the beads. We both smile, though mine is decidedly inadequate compared to his.
He bumps my shoulder with his playfully. “Seriously, what are you doing here?” he asks in a way that makes me think he has decided I don’t belong in this muggy bar of bad decisions. I take the tone as a compliment.
“Bachelorette party.” I attempt neutrality in my tone, though I know as soon as the words escape me, I have failed.
“Wow,” he says. “Please tell me those are your friends.” He points his bottle to the bar top, where Coral has taken off her bride sash and is flossing it between her legs.
I press my lips together. “The bride is my cousin. The rest I barely know. Please don’t judge me.”
“They’re a lively bunch,” he says, his eyes tracking to Melody, who has her leg wrapped around a column as she writhes against it.
“Yeah. What about you? What are you doing down here?”
“My buddy Kurt’s birthday. He’s always wanted to come to Mardi Gras. We surprised him for his thirtieth.” He does a little bob and weave to see through the crowd. “I think that’s him over there looking up your friend’s skirt.”
“So why aren’t you over there with them, looking up skirts and yelling, ‘Show me your tits’?”
He shrugs. “Not really my thing.”
“Tits, you mean? Tits are not your thing? So, you’re gay?”
“No, tits are my thing. Tits are definitely my thing.” He blushes and his lips turn an even richer shade of red.
I imagine them searing to the touch.
“Those may just be the two cringiest sentences to have ever come out of my mouth,” he says.
“Well then, I think you’re on your way.” I motion toward the guy in the booth, who’s still evaluating the dancing girls.
We both sip our drinks in unison, eyeing each other as we do.
My stomach is rolling. Not in a too-many-beignets way, but rather in an unnerved, gripped sort of way. I wonder if he feels at all the same.
“What do you do in Bellevue, Serena?” he asks into the dense silence. He keeps saying my name in that amused way, like he’s a toddler proud of himself for learning a new word, and it continues to get me every time.
“I’m an accountant,” I tell him, wondering what his response will be. Usually, people are either impressed or bored. Or make some reference to Angela from The Office. He nods and smiles in an expression I choose to take as impressed. “What about you, Julian?” Now I’m saying his name in the same playful way.
“I work at a tech start-up.”
I furrow my brow. “Well, that’s super vague. Do you mean you run the place or order the free food and beer?”
“Are those the only two options?” he asks. “I do a little of everything.”
It’s decidedly not an answer.
“Well, I’m impressed you have a job. The only other guy I met on this trip is a ‘professional surfer.’” I make air quotes.
“That can be a real job.”
“Yes, it can be. But then he told me he’s thirty-two, lives with his parents, and doesn’t actually surf for money. So really, he’s just jobless and spends his copious free time surfing.”
Julian shakes his head and clenches his jaw. It’s perfectly square, that jaw.
“Actually, there was a second guy. White. Blond. Wearing a shirt that said ‘Gyno’ with a rubber glove on it. He asked me what I was, and when I assumed he meant race rather than species, I told him Indian. He then proceeded toask, dot or feather.”
Julian cringes. “Yikes. I apologize on behalf of my gender. And race. And what the hell, on behalf of our species too.”
He pulls his bottom lip into his mouth and it reemerges wet, an even deeper shade of red, shiny like a cherry nail polish.
“For the record, I don’t live with my parents,” he says. “My job pays actual money. And I don’t walk around asking people what they are.”
“Please tell me we’re not playing Two Truths and a Lie right now.” “I swear,” he says, raising his hand in a scout’s honor.
“Marry me,” I say. I mean it jokingly of course, and he does smile, though the corners of his features sharpen and I know I’m blushing. I feel it then, a pull in my abdomen. I’m already missing this interaction with this guy while I’m still in the middle of it.
“Cheers to that.” He holds out his drink. “Cheers,” I say, clinking my glass to his bottle.
We gaze at each other like it’s a game of chicken. I refuse to look away first.
“There you are!” I jerk as Melody appears by my side, dragging Coral behind her. I try to ignore the heat in mycheeks as Melody surveys Julian with a ravenous look in her eyes. She shifts her gaze up and down him several times.“And who are you, handsome?” she says in a throaty way I find obscene.
Julian looks to me as if I can save him. He’s underestimating Melody. “Julian,” he says, with a little wave before shoving his hands into his pockets.
Melody turns to me, though her eyes never leave Julian. “You sly fox,” she says to me, still looking at him.
“Why’d you get off the bar?” I ask, desperate to separate Melody and Coral from Julian. Desperate to have him to myself again. Though I can claim no ownership over this man I’ve just met, I certainly can’t stomach the idea of Melody swooping in and clutching him away. She’s already done so with Coral.
“Coral needs to puke,” Melody says, finally giving me her attention. We both look at Coral, whose skin has taken on a shade reminiscent of my bridesmaid dress. “We were on our way to the bathroom, but then I saw”—she circles herfinger in the air between Julian and I—“this.”
I look to Julian in a panic. He smiles, just a little, like we share a secret. I feel even closer to him than I did a half second ago.
“I’ll take her!” I say, surprised by the warble in my voice.
“I’ve got her,” Melody returns, tightening her grip around Coral’s arm. “Maid of honor duties and all.” I bite at the inside of my cheek. In any other scenario, I would not be vying to be the one to help someone to the bathroom to puke. But Melody is right. It is a maid of honor duty. And I should be maid of honor.
Coral lets out a desperate moan. I know her throw-up tells. The geyser in her belly has burst its way to her throat. We have less than thirty seconds before there’s vomit on all our shoes.
The thought of leaving this moment with this guy—Julian— upsets me far more than it should. We’ve just met. Nonetheless, I feel the unease at the base of me. But Coral needs help. And it should be me who helps her. I want it to beme.
I grab Coral’s arm from Melody and, before she can object, yell, “Be right back.” My words are meant for Julian but I send them in his general direction without eye contact. I can’t manage to look at him with Melody ogling him beside me. She puts up less of a fight than I anticipate, distracted by Julian. I get it.
He nods and smiles at me, again just a little, and I feel the warmth between my legs as I haul Coral to the ladies’ room.
“I don’t feel so good,” Coral says, rocking her way through the door. There’s a long line because of course there is and a million feelings swirl about inside me as we wait. Disgust at the thought of Coral vomiting on me again. Abuzzing at my core brought on by the evening’s unexpected encounter. Something like culpability for the feelings I’m having for a stranger, knowing what I have at home. But mostly, panic at the thought Julian may not be waiting out there for me when I return from this crowded den of drunken ladies doing the pee-pee dance.
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