This wasn’t how he wanted to spend the first part of the weekend. Or the last part. Or any part in-between. Pace Ruffalo sighed, turning his sea-green eyes toward the second floor of the neatly kept apartment building. Somewhere up there was the home of Gerri Wilder, matchmaker extraordinaire…if the rumors were true. She was quickly becoming the least, best-kept secret in the area, and if Pace wanted to take advantage of her skills, it needed to be soon, before she had a line of customers wrapped around the block and he didn’t have a chance to plead his case.
He ran a hand nervously through his dark hair, which brushed his collar. Right. Even if Ms. Wilder did agree to help him, he’d need a boatload of luck. He doubted his particular dating problem was one she’d seen before, and he’d be lucky if she didn’t laugh him out of her apartment. How had it come down to this?
He shook his head. He knew how. He’d just had his thirty-fifth birthday. His mother was continually harping on him to settle down because most of the guys he grew up with were either in committed relationships or already married. He felt old. He felt left out. He felt…different. Pace needed to fix all that.
He’d finally screwed up his courage to walk across the street when a police cruiser pulled over beside him.
Pace groaned. Great. Just what I need.
The window rolled down to reveal the grinning face of Marek, a friend with whom he’d served in the Army Space Rangers. Now a police officer in their fine, South Shore town, the guy still played the field, trolling for women. Pace ran into him at clubs in Boston from time to time.
“Hey, buddy. Whatcha up to?” Marek attempted to act shocked as he toggled his gaze between Pace and the apartment building across the street. “Not taking yourself off the market, are you?”
Clearly, his friend was aware of Gerri Wilder’s business.
Pace gave a shrug he hoped looked convincing. “Nah. I’m just not having any luck at the bars lately, so I thought I’d see what she can scare up.”
Marek got serious and shook his head. “I don’t know, man. From what I’ve heard, you don’t want to mess with her. You know she does shifter matches, right? If she hooks you up with a cat or something dangerous, you might get mauled. She sure as shit won’t find you anyone conventional.”
Pace didn’t want to tell Marek that was what he hoped because then he’d have to explain why the pickings at normal clubs couldn’t give him what he needed. Hell, if he had run-of-the-mill tastes, his mother’s attempts at fix-ups might have been adequate.
“I’ll be careful,” he promised, then turned the tables to deflect further attention. “If you want, I’ll even put in a good word for you.”
Marek held up both hands. “Please don’t. I like my single life just fine.” The slight twitch as his friend protested told a different story.
“Okay.” Pace forced himself to joke. “But don’t say I didn’t offer. An ugly guy like you needs all the help he can get.”
Marek laughed and shot him a one-finger salute as he rolled up his window and eased back onto the street.
Pace let out a breath. Distraction over. It was time to meet Gerri Wilder.
He crossed the street, approached the door to the complex and pulled it open. There was an inside security door, which he expected, so he turned to the right and perused the names on the registry. Pinpointing the one he wanted, he picked up the house phone and dialed, holding his breath as the line rang once, twice…
“Hello.” A voice answered without hesitation. “Looking for love, dearie? Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’ll buzz you up.”
It wasn’t until Pace hung up that he realized he hadn’t given his name, or even said a word, yet the door noisily beckoned him in. How had Ms. Wilder known what he wanted? Maybe clients were the only visitors she got.
Pace grimaced. He’d see what she was all about. If he didn’t like her or felt the least bit uncomfortable, he could always leave.
He followed the numbers to the correct apartment, hesitating only briefly at her door before raising his hand to knock. After all, she already knew he was here. He gave a quick rap of his knuckles.
The door opened to reveal a small bit of a woman no more than four feet and change, blue eyes sparkling up at him from a smiling, wrinkled face. “Hello, sweetie. I’m glad you’re finally here. I expected you some months ago, but it seems you young folks like to take more and more time before making up your minds these days.” She shook her head and turned her back on him. “Well, come in. We don’t have all morning, and we need to get this match-up underway.”
Pace blinked. Underway? What is she talking about? He hadn’t even told her what he wanted yet.
“Uh, Ms. Wilder―”
“Gerri, please. Unless you insist I call you Mr. Ruffalo. Then we’ll stand on formalities, even though it seems silly.”
“Wha… Wait. How do you know who I am?”
His mother was society’s darling. Perhaps Gerri had seen him in the background at some of his family’s media events.
“I know a lot of things,” she returned cryptically, not giving him clarification. “Why don’t you have a seat?” She indicated the couch. “Our tea is ready. I just have to carry it out.”
Despite being flummoxed, Pace’s upbringing automatically kicked in. “Can I help you?” His hands hung at his sides, twitching nervously. Did the woman have the kettle on at all times waiting for potential clients?
“Not necessary, Pace. I can call you Pace, can’t I?”
“Uh, of course,” he agreed, feeling like he’d just dropped through Alice’s rabbit hole. This whole thing was turning out to be pretty spooky.
He sat gingerly on a grannie-style, overstuffed sofa, doilies covering the armrests. The thing was probably meant to comfort him, but it just added to his unease. He looked around, the eclectic mix of styles, colors and eras in her belongings, unnerving him more.
Gerri was back in the room less than a minute later, handing him a cup, a napkin and a manila folder. Somehow, he knew she’d already added milk and two sugars to his tea. Alarming, but not as much as what he saw when he opened the folder. It was a contract, his name on the top, detailing how their dealings would proceed and highlighting an obscene finder’s fee that made his eyes widen.
Before he could comment on any of it, Gerri continued.
“So now you must tell me about yourself.” She took a seat opposite him on a straight-back chair, sipping her tea delicately.
Pace almost snorted. What didn’t she already know?
She smiled. “You never know. I might be missing a few biographical details.”
Had he asked the question out loud?
“Humor an old woman and tell me about your business. I need more to go on than just your sexual proclivities.”
A gulp of tea snagged in his throat. He sputtered and coughed into the napkin until he regained control. What the hell? No way could she know anything about his sex life. He’d made damned sure to keep his dark secrets hidden over the years. She was clearly just poking around blindly. He had nothing to worry about.
“I’m, uh, a long-haul space trucker,” he informed her eventually, setting the tea on the coffee table, even though it was made to his exact taste. He didn’t want to spew if Gerri Wilder took him by surprise again. “I own a fleet of ships. The one I command, and have owned since the inception of my company, is the Calamity.”
He’d worked hard to build his business and create his own trade routes, but he couldn’t have done it without some family money. His mother had made the purchase of his first ship possible, wherein lay part of his problem.
“My mother―you’ve obviously heard of her―lent me the money for Calamity. An unwritten agreement toward paying her back has always been my promise to find a wife.” When Gerri opened her mouth, he held up a hand. “Not that I don’t want one,” he assured her. “I do. I want a wife and a family. I just haven’t found a woman who’s…right among the candidates my mother has paraded in front of me.”
The skinny-assed females his mother thought suitable were all well-coifed, well-spoken and immaculately manicured, but if looks told tales, they were only capable of starting a family...not taking care of one unless aided by nannies and servants. He’d been brought up in that kind of household and wasn’t interested in perpetuating the lifestyle. Besides, thin women, who appeared to live on carrot sticks and air, were not in the least bit appealing to him. He wanted a woman who looked like, well…more.
Gerri narrowed her eyes. “And you haven’t had any luck in the venues you frequent, or on any other planet where you’ve traveled? I find that hard to believe.” She blinked with a slight upturn to her lips.
Pace, a little over six feet tall with defined muscles due to the physical demands of lifting boxes and shifting cargo―which he still did, despite his growing number of employees―had never had complaints from those who visited his bed. But in all his sexually active years, he’d never found anyone who filled all his needs.
“I guess I’m picky.” He shrugged. “The women I’m attracted to don’t take me seriously,” he griped. “They think because I’m…relatively good looking, I must be putting them on. They imagine I can only be truly interested in what they deem ‘pretty girls’. Which is far from correct. In truth, my type runs toward, uh, more muscular, solidly built women.”
“And men,” Gerri added succinctly.
Pace’s eyes flew wide and his lungs froze. How could she know that?
“Let’s cut the bullshit, young man.” Gerri’s white hair, cut into a bob, swished around her jawline as she leaned forward. “You’ve been playing both sides of the field for a very long time. We both know you like the attention of both sexes, and therein lies your dilemma. You yearn for a family of your own, but you can’t stomach settling down with one of those ‘pretty girls’ because they’re not masculine enough and don’t ring your bell. You like your women strong, and your men stronger. Am I right?”
Pace shook his head to clear it, and when he regained his equilibrium, he found himself relieved she’d lifted his burden of secrecy. “Yes, I admit it. You’re right. I sleep with both sexes, but don’t think I’m not serious about this. I’ve done a lot of soul searching as I’ve aged.” He met her gaze. “At this point in my life, I’m one hundred percent willing to give up male partners if you can find me a woman I’m attracted to. One who meets my physical criteria and will give me the family I want.”
“And this will please your mother? This less than svelte woman?” Gerri asked slyly.
Pace nodded. “It won’t be ideal, but it will get her the grandchildren she covets.”
“And if she doesn’t agree with your choice, will she call in your loan and cause you to lose your business?”
He laughed. “I can pay her off a dozen times over with what I’ve made. We only keep up the pretense of my debt because it allows her to retain shares in the company.” He sobered. “I love my mother, Gerri. She’s not a bad woman. She’s simply a product of her well-heeled upbringing.”
“Which you are not.”
Pace shrugged. “I began forging my own path a long time ago. Long before I acknowledged my sexual preferences. If you already know so much about me, you know I served in the U.S. Army’s Space Ranger division.”
“And were highly decorated for your daring exploits, as I recall.”
He nodded. “I know how to take care of things.”
“Which is good.” Gerri sat up straighter in her chair. “Because the woman I’ve found for you resides in a rather dangerous quadrant of space, on the planet Gemma-Hydrox.”
Pace raised a brow. “Uh, I’ve spent years traveling the galaxies and I’ve never heard of such a place.”
“And your point is?” She didn’t let him answer. “In actuality, I’m the first from our galaxy to visit G-Hydrox, so don’t feel bad,” she answered smugly. “And I’ve only just convinced their elders to join the Planetary Alignment Consortium. While PAC is considering their application, I have been given permission to add their charming populace to my dating agency roster.”
Just like he wasn’t about to ask the old woman how she knew all about him, he wouldn’t ask how she’d found, let alone made her way to, such a distant planet. For all he knew, her Paranormal Dating Agency could be worth billions. Her price was certainly steep enough. She might own a huge fleet of spacecraft.
“So you want me to be the first to marry one of their females?”
“You could say that,” she said with an innocent smile. A much too innocent smile.
Something wasn’t quite right. Pace could smell it. But what could Gerri Wilder gain by lying to him or putting him in danger? And, peril aside, he was always up for an adventure. It had been far too long since he’d been anything but complacent, traveling within his territories. He’d be the first from earth to establish a trade route to this new planet. That wouldn’t take care of his need for a family, but in case the mate thing turned out to be a dud, it would assuage his mother with a new influx of income into the company.
“Are you interested?” Gerri probed, breaking into his thoughts.
“You know I am. Calamity and I are tired of making the same old runs. We’d love to stretch our legs.”
“And find a life partner. Doesn’t that take priority over business?” Her lips pursed, waiting for his answer.
He stood and withdrew a black credit card from the pocket of his jeans. “Absolutely. That’s what I’m here for. Withdraw your fee. I’m ready.”
She took his card, walked over to her desk, punched a few buttons, then ran it in front of a small chip reader before handing it back.
“Done,” she said. “I’ll be in touch once I have all your travel details. And not to worry. Your destination galaxy is full of rogues, but the planets are non-warring. No military action takes place, so you should be relatively safe.”
“Good to know.” He took his card back and headed for the door. “I look forward to hearing from you.”
“Wait.” Gerri’s command stopped him before he grabbed the door handle.
He turned and raised his brows. “Something we forgot?”
She had that sly look on her face again. “Don’t you want to know the name of your intended?”
“Sure,” he agreed, although intended was a strong term for a woman he had yet to meet. “What is it?”
“Her name is Lola. Lola Xeltrax.”