“For being an alleged expert in all things of a romance-related nature, your love life sucks.”
“Thanks for the reminder. Friend.” I nudged my “alleged” friend, Quinn, as we moved up in line at our favorite place to grab breakfast before heading into work.
“Telling it like it is. That’s what friends are for.” Quinn blew me an air kiss before scoping out the display case of crack cocaine in pastry form. I wasn’t sure why she scanned the selections every morning—we’d been ordering the same thing for the past three years. “You know what today is, right?”
“Yeah, it’s March fifteenth.”
She saw right through my act. “Also known as the one-month mark after hooking up with Steamy and Dreamy. If you don’t hear back from him by today, you might as well—”
“Yeah, I know, Quinn.” To distract myself from the mention of a certain male, I focused on the chocolate-filled croissant that had my name on it.
“I’m not saying that to be a bitch. You know that, right?”
“There’s a reason we follow certain rules when it comes to the male species and it’s to protect us from the douchecanoes of the world.” Quinn’s sneakers squeaked against the tile as we moved up.
Only a few back from the cashier. I could almost feel my blood sugar spiking. “This guy, I don’t know. He was different. Definitely not one of those douchecanoe types that are taking over the world.”
Quinn shook her head. “It’s like a damn plague.”
“A swarm of locusts.”
“A swarm of douchecanoes, whose only compass is the aim of their dick.” When the older woman in front of us gave us “the look,” Quinn the traitor pointed at me and muttered, “Relationship Troubles.”
“He wasn’t like that,” I said, quieter so as not to add elevated brow number two to the tally. It was still early.
“You haven’t heard from him for a month.”
“Almost,” I said promptly. “Almost a month.”
Quinn’s eyes lifted to the ceiling. “You spent a whole what? Five-ish hours with him?”
“No.” I gave her an insulted look. “Almost nine hours.”
She waved at me. “Excuse me. That’s damn near a long-term relationship. Definitely long enough to ascertain the man you dove into bed with after a couple of drinks was not one of those one-night-stand, dick-compass douchecanoes.”
Elevated eyebrow number two.
It was going to be one of those mornings. And it was only Monday.
“There was a connection.” My fingers curled around my pearl necklace, twisting the smooth orbs. It was an old habit, worrying at my grandma’s necklace. I was lucky I hadn’t rubbed them all down to nubs by now.
“Yeah, I took sex ed in fifth grade. I’m familiar with that connection.” Quinn employed her hands to demonstrate an act that was inappropriate for a café with finches on their curtains.
“Not that connection. The other one. The important one.”
“Says the romance writer who’s so hopelessly romantic she wrote an article about a fish falling in love with a duck.”
My mouth fell open as I squared myself in front of her. Quinn was pretty much my total opposite: tall, thin, dark hair cut to her jaw, complemented by dark eyes and skin. She dressed totally different from me as well. She lived in sneakers—the trendy, bright kind—never wore anything from her waist down unless it was a pair of jeans, and her chest was always covered in a T-shirt with some emblem or saying or picture on it.
Quinn’s pinkie went beneath my chin to close my mouth.
“First of all, I am not a romance writer. I am a journalist. One who researches and writes about topics of an amorous nature.”
“A romance writer,” she mouthed slowly.
My arms crossed over my pale pink cardigan. “Second, I’m not a hopeless romantic. I’m a hopeful romantic. And third—” I glared at her when she gave an exaggerated yawn—“that article was well-documented.”
“It was a fish—a rainbow trout, if I remember correctly. And a mallard duck.” From the way she was blinking at me, it was like she was waiting for me to be struck by a lightning bolt charged with reality.
“If you actually read the article, you would have realized I didn’t say it was love the way we humans know it, but a connection nonetheless. One that made no sense but could not merely be written off to coincidence.” My nose wrinkled as I said that last word. The coincidence people. That state-of-mind. Believing nothing happened for a reason, and that fate was a fallacy. What a sad way to spend one’s existence.
“It’s really a miracle they haven’t committed you yet.” Quinn patted my cheek before pulling cash out of her pocket. We were next in line.
“Okay, okay. I know the duck-fish article was out there, but people eat that stuff up. And you can’t deny there’s something going on when a duck feeds the grasshoppers it catches to a foot-and-a-half-long trout.”
Quinn’s head tipped. “And that’s supposed to convince me of true love how?”
“It’s supposed to convince you, and my readers, that there’s one special someone for everyone.”
“And what am I supposed to do if my special someone is a scaly underwater dweller with fins?”
I patted her cheek. “Then learn to swim.”
We’d just made it to the counter when a different employee moved into the cashier spot. Quinn had been in the middle of adjusting her bra strap when she saw him. When he saw her too.
Our favorite crack cocaine dealer—also known as Justin the Jacked—cracked a smile that made the planet tip on its axis for half a second. He had the height of a basketball player, the beef of a football player, and the face of one of those Norse gods. He stuck out in a café filled with sweets and women, although I was confident half of the women who visited Flour Power every morning came for his buns, not the flaky kind Amie baked fresh every morning.
Quinn had to grab my arm for support when his flashing green eyes landed on her. As if a guy like him needed to have twinkling eyes to top off the man sundae already layered in his dish.
“Love the shirt today.” Justin’s eyes dipped to the faded logo on Quinn’s shirt.
Quinn was struck mute. Only her eyelids were moving.
Justin rang in our orders without asking. “Damn shame the Sonics aren’t around anymore. Best team in the NBA.”
Quinn said? Nothing.
I drove my elbow into her ribs when he reached inside the case to grab our croissants.
“I love you.” It burst out of her mouth loud enough that half the cafe heard it.
“I mean, I love them. The Sonics.” She pointed at her chest before covering the Super Sonics logo with her hands. Which more looked like she was cupping her breasts.
The croissant Justin had just snagged from the display fell out of his tongs. “Shit.” He dug back into the display, his gaze still aimed at the inadvertent boob squeezer.
“Stop groping yourself in front of the person responsible for serving our breakfast,” I whispered to her. “He drops one more and we’re going to have to go halfsies on the last one.”
When Quinn glanced down and saw the positioning of her hands, not even her flawless brown skin could conceal the blush that flamed into her face.
He managed to get two chocolate croissants tucked into paper sacks, safe and sound, before making our coffees. As he stirred cream and sugar into mine and milk into Quinn’s, he glanced at Super Sonic Squeezer.
“I managed to snag a couple of tickets to the Knicks game this weekend.” He swallowed, his big hands having a difficult time fastening the lids on our coffee cups. “It’s not the Sonics, but I have an extra if you know of anyone who might want to tag along with me.”
Quinn was staring at his hands, probably wondering what every woman in here was—were all of his appendages as massive? Another elbow to the ribcage broke her from her reverie. “I can’t think of anyone, but if I do, I’ll make sure to let you know.”
My eyes closed as I resisted the urge to beat my head against the glass display. Quinn had the flirting IQ of an amoeba. Not that I was a whiz in that category either, but good grief, the guy with ginormous body parts was asking her on a date.
Justin’s forehead wrinkled as he slid our coffees across the counter. “Okay.
Thanks?” He actually looked dejected as he made our change, those green orbs not nearly so sparkly when we said goodbye.
As we wove through the line of women toward the door, I leaned in. “You should probably spend more time reading my column. He just asked you on a date and you responded by offering to find someone else to go in your place.”
“What? He didn’t ask me out.” She shoved through the door, picking an end off of her croissant. “Guys never ask me out.”
“That one just did. The very one you’ve been crushing on hard the past year.” I checked my watch to see if we could walk to work or if we had to jog to it. It was a walk day. I motioned at her with my coffee cup. She’d been one of my best friends since I’d moved to the city, and was amazing in every way. “And what do you mean guys never ask you out? You’re brilliant and beautiful. Witty and fun. The total package. What guy wouldn’t want to go out with you?”
“I’m a sports writer. I have short hair. And I wear sneakers.” She held up her foot. “Girls ask me out, not guys.”
“People don’t automatically assume you’re a lesbian because you like sports and sneakers.”
She huffed. “My parents think I’m a lesbian.”
We shared a sigh as we milled down the busy sidewalks of New York. Not even the buttery, sugary goodness of our morning tradition could lift our moods.
We commiserated our lacking love lives in silence together for a few minutes, and then Quinn gave me a serious look. “Okay, so after today, no more of this wishing and waiting you’ve been doing the past month. Deal?”
“What wishing and waiting?” I asked, playing clueless.
She rolled her eyes. “If he doesn’t call you or try to make contact today, he’s gone. His file goes into the trash and you empty that puppy, got it?”
“Already done.” My eyes crossed when I checked the tip of my nose. Still the same size.
“Just write it off as an experience-gainer and keep moving forward. He’s not the only hot stranger you’ll run into in the middle of a snowstorm, Hannah.”
“Absolutely not. I’m sure I’ll find myself stranded in Chicago after all the flights are canceled, subsequently leading to all of the nearby hotels being fully booked, and forced to spend the night on the snowy streets, when I bump into a man who makes ovaries and other parts throb. We share a few drinks and laughs, before he gives me the best three orgasms of my whole life.” I took a breath. “Totally the kind of thing that happens every few months.”
Quinn slung her arm around my shoulder as we moved inside of the building the World Times was housed in. “Why is it so hard to find a good guy these days?”
“Are you asking Ms. Romance the journalist or Hannah Arden your friend?”
“You say that like they have differing views on the subject.”
“They don’t. I’ll just be sure to end my response with an XOXO, Ms. Romance if you want the journalist response.”
Quinn groaned as she punched the up elevator button. “You hopeless romantics make me nauseous.”
“Hopeful romantics,” I clarified again, trying to discreetly tug on the elastic waist of my tights. They were doing the slow creep down my ass, and if I didn’t do the regular yanking and wrangling, they’d be down to my knees by lunch. I didn’t know why they bothered with making them in different sizes. The Cs felt as snug as the As, managing to cut a purple indentation into my waist every single day.
I wasn’t overweight according to my physician and BMI calculations, but I was practically obese by Manhattan standards. In this city, a size ten was considered chunky on a leggy, tall woman, and I had to stretch my neck to hit five-four. I liked my body though, and I knew that was what mattered. But sometimes I wished other women liked their bodies enough to actually nourish them so I didn’t look like the abnormality in a nightclub.
“Do you smell that?” Quinn sniffed the air when the doors closed, once the elevator was packed to capacity.
“Promotion. I can smell it from forty floors away.” She took another whiff, giving me an excited look.
“I don’t want to jinx it.” I took a slow breath, feeling that bubble of excitement in my stomach when I imagined Mr. Conrad sitting me down in the conference room and offering me the head of the Life and Style department. I’d been waiting for this day since I decided in middle school that I was going to become a journalist. I didn’t think this opportunity would come my way until I’d reached my forties at least, but the position was opening up and my column was the top read and commented on online article every week.
At least, the top read and commented regular contributor.
“What time are we celebrating tonight?” Quinn asked.
“And by celebrating, you mean what time are we all meeting at my place to watch Pride and Prejudice, Colin Firth edition, and wonder how much longer our own Mr. Darcy will take to enter the scene?”
“It’s P&P night? I might have to take a pass. Last time we watched that, half the women started crying. Before the movie started.” Quinn cringed. “I’m waiting for all of your periods to sync. Any day now. You’re all a cult.”
“It’s okay. We love you despite you being a reluctant romantic. We accept you as you are.”
“I’m not the reluctant one. It’s the men of the world who are. Specifically, when it comes to me.” Quinn scanned the elevator, her gaze lingering on the subjects of the male species, more captivated by their phones than the woman who had just grabbed her boobs. After a couple of seconds of going unnoticed, Quinn gave up with a sigh. “Why couldn’t I have been born with the wiring that dug chicks? My love life would be so much more gratifying. Not to mention existent.”
I fought a smile as we shoved through the mob of bodies when the elevator doors sprang open on the fortieth floor. “There’s one perfect someone for everyone. Forget about the rest.”
Quinn’s snort wasn’t soft. “Peddle your lies someplace else.”
My shoulder lifted, as I was used to the barrage of criticism I took for being one of those rare types who still believed in happy endings and soul mates. “I’m looking forward to the day you meet him and realize I’ve been right this whole time. I accept apologies both in written and verbal forms.”
As we whisked through the doors of the World Times, I felt something different in the air. That hint of anticipation—both nervous and excited—settled around me as I moved past the front desk toward the conference room.
“And I only accept one kind of apology when we’re old spinsters on our death beds and you realize it was me who was right all along.”
“What kind of apology is that?” I asked, chucking my empty coffee cup inside the garbage can as we passed it. I missed. I should have known better than to assume I had the athletic talent necessary to get a small cup inside a large hole from two feet away. Gym class had been my own personal hell on earth, my gym teachers spawns of Satan himself.
Quinn shook her head as I crouched to retrieve my cup from the floor and try for the garbage can again. She was one of those sporty types who could lob a carton of milk from twenty yards back and sink it in every time. “The kind that involves lots of shameless groveling.”
Instead of detouring to her cubicle, she stayed with me until we were outside the conference room. “You’re impossibler.”
“That’s not a word.”
“Yet you believe in lots of things that aren’t real, so don’t dog me on one word that might not be.” Quinn turned toward me, dropping her hands on my shoulders like she was about to give me a pep talk at halftime. “Go get that promotion, Miss Arden. Show the world pink angora and runs in pantyhose can get the job done just as much as a smart pantsuit.”
“Crap. I’ve got a run? Already?” My head twisted over my shoulder to find, sure enough, a run peeking up through the back of my suede heels, already stretching to mid-calf.
“Forget about the run—you’re about to be offered a kickass position and have your salary doubled. I, on the other hand, have a sterile cubicle to return to, where I’ll be forced to write about why my beloved Mets lost their preseason game last night, after which I’ll check my social media accounts over lunch like everyone else and pretend I’m swimming in potential male suitors the way Molly Kennedy does every damn Monday after a weekend spent in debauchery.”
I scooted close and lowered my voice. “Molly Kennedy might have a mess of male suitors, but they’re only in it for one thing.”
Quinn nudged me. “Sex?”
My head shook solemnly. “No-commitment-required sex,” I said just as gravely. “And that, my friend, is not the kind of male suitor we’re looking for.”
I dropped my hand on the conference room door handle as Quinn mumbled, “No-commitment-required sex is better than no sex at all.” Before I could say anything back, she lifted her finger at me. “And before you go all preachy on me, you’re the one who hooked up with a total stranger last month.”
“He wasn’t a total stranger.”
Quinn huffed so loudly it stretched all through cubicle land. “Please. You knew him for a few hours before you let him do the kind of filthy things I’m afraid to repeat out loud for fear of being smote where I stand.”
My cheeks flamed instantly. “We had sex. It’s not like we dog-earred every other page of the Kama Sutra.”
“From the details you gave me, you two dog-eared every page of the Kama Sutra.” Quinn tugged at the ends of my nonconformist red hair. “Hussy.”
“Shameless harlot,” she crowed as she turned to leave.
“Bitter wench.” I stuck my tongue out at her before opening the conference room door.
Promotion. Dreams coming true. It was all waiting for me on the other side of that door.
“Good morning, Mr. Conrad,” I greeted as I stepped inside.
Mr. Conrad was sitting at the head of the conference table, waiting, but he wasn’t alone. My feet stopped moving before my eyes landed on the unexpected third party. A small gasp spilled from me when I saw him.
“You,” I said, my hand forming around the edge of the nearest chair to keep me steady.
Momentary surprise filtered from his face. “You,” he echoed, his address sounding like less of an accusation than mine had. His jaw moved as he appraised me, blinking a couple of times as though he were questioning his vision. I wasn’t sure if what I was seeing was real either.
“You two know each other?” Mr. Conrad’s voice broke through my haze of disbelief.
My mind went blank, unsure how to answer that. Not even sure why this person was sitting at the conference table of the company I worked for in New York City. Had he tracked me down? Figured a phone call was too prosaic for the connection we’d shared that one night?
But why at my office? And why would Mr. Conrad’s presence be required?
The questions would not end, the answers remaining far out of reach.
The room started to revolve.
“Arden, are you okay?” Mr. Conrad asked, his voice sounding muffled and far-off, like it was coming through a dream.
Snap out of it.
I managed to crack out of it a fraction, just enough to clear my throat and work up some kind of semi-coherent reply. “I’m confused.”
“That makes two of us.” Mr. Conrad waved his fountain pen between us. “Do you two know each other or not?”
“A little.” His voice filled the room as his head turned away from me.
A little? There is no other man on the planet who has more cardinal knowledge of my body than him and we know each other a little? Not the word choice I would have gone for.
“And you two are on friendly terms?” Mr. Conrad asked, the slant of his brow doubtful.
“Friendly enough terms, yes,” he answered again.
Friendly enough terms? Is that what you call it? I decided taking a seat was a good idea, but I selected the one a couple down from him and on the other side.
“Well now I’ve seen everything.” Mr. Conrad chuckled.
“What are you doing here?” I smiled tightly across the table at him, reeling to catch up.
He clicked his expensive-looking silver pen, his gaze aimed away from me. “I’m guessing for the same reason you are.”
The head of the Life and Style department position. That was the whole reason for my meeting with Mr. Conrad this morning.
“I’m here to talk about the Life and Style position opening soon,” I said.
One slow pen click. “Me too.”
The room went from revolving to spinning like one of those damn Tilt-A-Whirl rides I’d yacked on.
“You’re a journalist?” I asked. “With what paper?”
Mr. Conrad cleared his throat. “I thought you two knew each other.”
“Not in the professional capacity, Mr. Conrad,” the pen-clicker announced, the corner of his mouth twitching.
My eyes narrowed at him, not that he was looking at me to notice. “Not in an unprofessional one either.”
“Hannah, this is Brooks North,” Mr. Conrad continued, not hearing—or ignoring—my comment.
“I get a name.” My head tipped across the table at “Brooks North.” “Thirty days later.”
His gaze floated to me for a fleeting moment. “And do I get one as well?”
“Not until I figure out what you’re doing here, at my place of employment, sitting at the same table as my boss, looking at me like I’m the only one in this room who doesn’t know what’s going on.” I shifted in my chair, holding myself back from tugging at the waist of my pantyhose. The chocolate croissant was not settling well.
“Your guess is as good as mine.” Brooks took a drink from the mug resting in front of him—from the looks of it, I guessed it was green tea. He was a tea drinker. One of those people. The kind fanatical coffee drinkers like myself did not consort with. I should have known.
“You might know Brooks better by his nom de plume.” Mr. Conrad cleared his throat, the kind that was a stall, not caused from a tickle in his throat. “Mr. Reality.”
My fingers squeezed the underside of my forearm, followed by a twist when I didn’t jolt awake. Nothing was happening.
I wasn’t dreaming.
This person, the man I’d slept with, was the Mr. Reality? Surely the fates couldn’t have been such cruel bitches.
Brooks’s brows were drawn together as he stared at me pinching my arm. “What are you doing?”
“I have an itch.”
A slow smile crept into place. “One you couldn’t help scratch?”
My fingers curled. He was screwing with me. No wait, not screw . . . messing with me. For being all amazing and wonderful that one night, he sure was letting his jerk flag fly today.
Too good to be true: the words I’d used to describe him to my friends that next day. How tragically prophetic those words had been.
“Hannah here is a bit of your professional nemesis, Brooks.” Mr. Conrad cut through our verbal volley, seemingly clueless to the tension rising to a head down the table from him. “She writes under the alias of Ms. Romance.”
Brooks’s throat moved. When his gaze traveled back to me, there was a new glint in those pale blue spheres.
“Excuse me, Mr. Conrad?” The speaker on the conference room phone crackled to life with Mr. Conrad’s receptionist, Shelly. “It’s Mr. Davenport on the other line. He has a quick question for you.”
Mr. Conrad’s eyes lifted to the ceiling, no stranger to the innumerable “quick” questions that the World Times’s CEO had for him. “Patch him through.” He lifted his index finger at the two of us. “This will just take a minute.”
Mr. Conrad had no more than picked up the phone before Brooks popped off a chuckle. “You? Ms. Romance?”
It didn’t really look like he was waiting for a confirmation, but I still gave him one in the form of sliding a business card from my purse. If I’d left one of those on the nightstand early that morning—instead of where I’d actually left my number—he would have known thirty days earlier that I was the Ms. Romance. But in my experience, there was no better way to exterminate the chance of a second date than by mentioning I was one of the most well-read romance journalists in the country. It was the equivalent of hinting at engagement ring preferences.
Brooks glanced at the card, turning it over before slipping it into the pocket of that pristine suit jacket. Today’s was slate in color. That night I was fast coming to regret, the suit had been granite.
“How’s that for irony?” he announced at last, going back to clicking his pen.
I had to unlatch my jaw before I could muster up a response. “Irony? Not the word I’d use.” Leaning into the table, I checked Mr. Conrad to make sure he was still indisposed with his call. “Did you know?”
Brooks’s forehead creased. “Of course I didn’t know. Did you?”
“Do you really think what ensued would have happened if I did?”
The corner of his mouth tugged up. “With the amount of gin in your system, I could have proclaimed I was Hitler incarnate and that wouldn’t have stopped you.”
My eyes narrowed as I put a stranglehold on that Irish temper that had gotten me into plenty of trouble in the past. This man sitting across from me was nothing like the one who’d slid onto the barstool next to me last month. In fact, the two couldn’t have been any more different.
Mr. Conrad plunked the phone onto the receiver before I could fire off a response. “Sorry about the interruption. Let’s get back to discussing both of your applications for the head of the Life and Style position.”
For the second time that morning, my eyes felt as though they were about to burst from their sockets. My finger stabbed in Brook’s direction. “You’re actually considering him for that position?”
A huff resonated across from me.
“I wouldn’t have flown him all the way from San Francisco if I wasn’t ‘actually considering’ him.” Mr. Conrad gave me one of those looks I was familiar with—they usually followed one of my far-fetched article pitches, like “duck falls in love with fish.”
“He doesn’t even work for the World Times. He’s a freelancer.” Based on my tone, that was an offense as grave as clubbing seal pups in front of preschoolers.
“That’s because no one can afford to keep me on staff full-time,” Brooks interjected. “That’s what happens when you build a following like mine. More readers means more money.”
I ignored the coat-tail rider. “He has no idea what the culture is like here. You can’t put an outsider into a role like this, Mr. Conrad.”
“Go ahead. Keep talking about me like I’m not in the room. I’ll just sit here, waiting, while you argue with your boss, who holds the decision as to who will get the job.” Brooks clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair. “You can just keep paving the way for me to land the position we’re both here for.”
My tongue worked into my cheek to keep from shouting something childish at him. I couldn’t believe I’d actually found him attractive. Sure, he might have been hard all over and built like an Olympic swimmer, with dark hair that contrasted against light eyes and a face that could make a nun blush, but he was the Mr. Reality. Which translated to him possessing a soul that could put Satan out of a job.
I forced myself to take a breath before speaking. “Mr. Conrad, you can’t be serious.”
“He applied for the job and is just as qualified.” Mr. Conrad pulled at his checked bowtie before continuing. “And he has more readers than your column.”
There it was. The sore spot. Ever since Mr. Reality pounced into the editorial world—hot on my heels after Ms. Romance’s column started taking off, I might add—he’d been gaining a loyal, bordering on cult-like, following. Just a few months ago, his column had tipped more online reads, comments, shares, and likes than mine. Because he wasn’t riding in on my coat tails or anything.
Once I was mostly certain I wouldn’t breathe fire when my mouth opened, I said, “That’s because it’s human nature to latch onto something negative over something positive.”
Across the table, a sharp grunt sounded. “It’s also human nature to prefer to be told the truth rather than fed a spoonful of lies.”
“You’re an asshole.” Temper alert. This is not a drill.
In the face of my ire, Brooks remained completely chill as he glanced at the sleek watch on his wrist. “Eight twenty a.m.” He shook his head. “Sorry, you don’t hold the record.”
“What record?” I asked, pulling at my grandma’s pearls as though they were strangling me.
“Calling me an asshole earliest in the morning. That honor belongs to someone else.”
“I’m sure plenty of women call you asshole in the morning.” My arms crossed as I twisted in my chair a little more away from the steaming pile of cocky across from me. “When they roll out of bed once the alcohol’s worn off.”
Mr. Conrad was looking between the two of us, his expression drawn in a way that suggested he’d consumed too much cheese the night before.
“Ms. Bitter might be a better title for you,” Brooks quipped, accompanied by another damn pen click.
“And Mr. Delusional might be more fitting for you,” I replied, pulling out my own preference when it came to writing implements. And it wasn’t a fancy silver fountain pen that had likely cost as much as my first month’s paycheck working at the World Times almost eight years ago.
Brooks leaned into the table, one dark brow carving high into his forehead. “And what’s your relationship status? Ms. Romance?”
I felt heat seeping into my face as I squished the urge to shift in my chair.
“That’s what I thought,” he continued. “Might want to take some of that relationship advice you deal to your junkies.”
At the end of the table, I didn’t miss Mr. Conrad covering his mouth. What was the level beyond wrath? I was a writer and couldn’t find the right emotion to describe what I was feeling. A word had yet to be invented for the surge of fury jolting through me.
“Now that we’ve gotten the pleasantries out of the way, let’s cut to the chase of why we’re all here.” Mr. Conrad planted his hands on the table as he rose from his chair. “Readership is down across the board. Physical papers are becoming obsolete. In fifty years, they’ll be displayed in museums as antiques.”
My expression pinched together.
“There’s no shortage of competitors out there, and we’re all fighting for the same scraps. We need something fresh, different. We need to do something no one else has done. Something that will grip the nation like an addiction, readers refreshing browsers and dashing toward inboxes for the latest update.”
This was the point in Mr. Conrad’s spiel when Brooks’s face showed uncertainty.
“We need ‘Man Walks on the Moon’ and ‘America Enters World War II’ and ‘Women Win the Right to Vote.’ We need something big—massive—and we need it now.”
While Mr. Conrad paused to catch his breath, I jumped in. “I thought we were here to talk about the job position.”
“That’s precisely what we’re talking about,” Mr. Conrad replied.
“I’m afraid I don’t follow.” Brooks cleared his throat. “I write an advice column. I’m not a big headline journalist.”
“You write an anti-advice column,” I mumbled.
“Coming from the person who penned the dribble entitled ‘We Can Have it All’? I’m good with you thinking I’m wrong because our definition of right could not be more different.”
“Are you two going to sit here and argue all day? Or would you like to act your ages and confirm I wasn’t wrong in believing either of you would make a fine department head here at the World Times?” For being a short man, Mr. Conrad had a way of making me feel small based off his tone alone.
Both Brooks and I clamped our mouths closed and let him continue.
“I’ve hatched an idea, our Hail Mary, our ‘headline’ that will go down in history. Except it won’t be just one article readers can’t help but fawn over every word—it will be numerous. So many it will put us back on top and secure our future in these unsure times.”
I uncrossed and recrossed my legs. I didn’t have a clue what Mr. Conrad had come up with, but that wild glow in his eye told me enough. This was the man who’d rose to his height after pitching the idea that the World Times should charge an online subscription price for people to read our articles while every other paper was peddling their online goods for free. From the stories I’d been told by some of the employees who’d been around back then, the company knew it would either sink them faster than the Titanic or be the one thing that managed to keep the World Times solvent. Lucky for me, Charles Conrad’s wild idea had panned out.
Mr. Conrad remained quiet, looking between Brooks and me like he was waiting for our own excitement to bubble up from within.
“What, exactly, is this idea?” I could almost make out the note of uncertainty in Brooks’s voice, but it could have just been a bout of indigestion.
“It’s a kind of social experiment.” Mr. Conrad’s stubby finger waved between Brooks and me. “And you two will facilitate it.”
The gnawed-to-bits yellow number two pencil dropped from my hand. I didn’t know where Mr. Conrad was going with this, but I could sense the direction was concerning.
“What kind of social experiment?” Brooks asked the question on my mind as well.
“The kind two journalists like yourselves should find enticing.”
That was the point my throat started to take on that cottony feeling.
“An experiment that will prove, once and for all”—Mr. Conrad’s thick, silver brows peaked—“which school of mind is correct where love is concerned.”
Across the table, the villain chuckled, while I struggled to catch up to what had been said.
“And how do we do that beyond what we’ve already been doing to prove our own opinions on that topic?” The words kind of tumbled from my mouth like candy from a machine. “He believes there’s no such thing as true love, that it’s all some farce we’ve conjured up out of thin air, while I clearly believe there is very much a phenomenon known as true love.”
“Key word being ‘phenomenon.’”
I fired a glare at him, but he’d moved on to twirling his precious pen between his fingers. Mr. Conrad’s shoulders raised as if I was backing up his idea.
“What do you need us to do, Charles?” Brooks asked, all calm and collected, as though his blood pressure wasn’t charging into dangerous territory as I guessed mine was.
And . . .
Had he called him Charles? No one in the office called Mr. Conrad by his first name. Not that it was a spoken rule or anything, but it was definitely an unspoken one.
Mr. Conrad—Charles—drummed his fingers on the conference room table. “I need you two to put the World Times back on top.”
“And we do that by . . . ?” My hand twirled.
“By setting your laptops aside, and putting your money where your mouth is.”
Brooks took a sip of his tea, his eyes giving away the same confusion I felt. “I think we’re both going to need you to spell it out for us, play by play.”
Mr. Conrad leaned more into the table, his round face practically rosy. “I want the two of you to start dating. I want to see who comes out the victor. Love or logic. Romance or reality.”
I blinked a few times, wondering if Justin the Jacked had pumped a squirt of peyote into my coffee.
“If Hannah winds up falling for you by the end of it because of your so-called tricks and tools of the trade, your point will have been proven. Love can be manufactured with just about any eligible individual out there.” Mr. Conrad was nearly bouncing now, as though he’d devised a surefire plan to save the world from imminent destruction. “If she doesn’t fall for you, then Hannah proves her point—that there is one person for everyone, and love can’t just be pulled out of thin air.”
After a few moments’ pause, Mr. Conrad continued. “So? What do you think?”
Silence. The kind that strained my eardrums and made me feel as if I’d taken a hard hit to the head.
Brooks was the first of us to find his voice. “Barring the obvious contempt Ms. Arden bears for me, I see one rather large problem with this ‘social experiment.’”
Mr. Conrad’s lips pursed. “What’s that?”
“She knows of the wager. I can bring my A-game to every date, but she knows all she has to do is resist my attempts for her to come out the winner. That’s along the lines of telling a chess player they might lose the game, then giving them their opponent’s every move in advance. There’s no possible way to contend with that kind of advantage.”
“You’re Brooks North. Look at you. I’m sure you, if anyone, could find a way to woo one biased woman with a slight advantage in this setup.”
Brooks gave a huff at the “slight” part.
“Besides, Hannah will play fair. She’ll make sure she stays as impartial and objective as possible, right? In the name of research?” When Mr. Conrad looked at me, whatever he read on my face must have been taken as a confirmation instead of a What the hell? “You on board, Hannah?”
“No.” As my head shook, tangles of red hair whipped across my face. “I am not. In fact, I couldn’t be any more ‘off board’ with this.”
Mr. Conrad harrumphed. “Please. It’ll be great. Your readers vying for you. His readers rooting for him. It will be the dating equivalent of Ali versus Foreman.”
“Foreman almost had to leave the ring on a stretcher. And this analogy is supposed to comfort me how?” My nails scraped across my freckled wrist, feeling itchy from more than just the angora.
“You’d get to date him.” Mr. Conrad thrust his arm Brooks’s direction as though he were Aries incarnate. “Not exactly a consolation prize.”
“What does that mean?”
Brooks cupped his hand over his mouth as though he were whispering, “Pretty sure it means we don’t swim in the same social pools and you’d be trading up.”
Exhaling through my nose, slowly, I unclenched my fists. Then I leveled him with a look. “Sure. Trading up in the douchecanoe category.”
“Douchecanoe? Really?” Brooks chuckled. “Now that’s a first.”
“Sure it won’t be a last,” I muttered before turning toward Mr. Conrad. “I can’t do this.” I noted the pleading tone in my voice. “It isn’t fair to ask this of us, and you’re overestimating how many people would actually find the two of us dating interesting. It’s immoral and shallow and no. Just no.”
Mr. Conrad’s mouth did the pursing thing again. “Then fine. He gets the job.” He dusted off his hands as he reclaimed his seat.
“That’s not fair,” I exclaimed. “I’ve put in eight years here and my column gets the most reads every week.”
“Not counting my freelance column,” Brooks added, grinning at me.
Mr. Conrad shrugged. “That’s life.”
“Yeah”—Brooks leaned in, pale blue eyes gleaming—“it’s not so romantic.”
“Mr. Conrad, I can’t do this. Truly, anyone else. Anyone.”
“What? Because you two have differing opinions? Hannah, everyone in this room knows what a thick skin a journalist has to develop in order to survive.” Mr. Conrad gave me a look, a closer one, almost like he was starting to see through what was really going on.
“It’s not like you can’t say there isn’t a certain kind of chemistry you feel for me.” Brooks rubbed his mouth while I focused on not wanting to punch him in it.
“That’s true. The two of you, based on the topics you write, have a sort of professional chemistry that readers will love to watch on screen.”
My hands flattened on the table. “On screen?”
Mr. Conrad brushed his face, avoiding eye contact. “That’s a component to these dates you two will go on. We’ll have cameras going throughout, live streaming for the world to tune into.”
My heart was thundering; the fastest it had pumped since that one night . . .
I would never again be able to think about that night without burning sage and creating a salt ring after.
“I’m a writer. I write. I don’t do cameras and live streams. Uh-uh. No way.” My head whipped again as I pulled at the collar of my sweater.
“You are a journalist, thereby opening yourself to the public eye and their scrutiny. If you wanted to be one of those anonymous writer types, you should have gone into regency romance.”
My mouth opened but clamped right after, hating that he had a point.
“How long do you see this social experiment running?” Brooks asked.
“Six months,” Mr. Conrad responded, the answer on the tip of his tongue.
“Six months?!” My eyes went round. “I thought you wanted to get the position filled as soon as possible.” It hadn’t been this hard to breathe since I was a kid and glued to my inhaler.
“I did.” Mr. Conrad poured himself a cup of coffee from the tray that had been set out for the meeting. Alongside the coffee and hot water carafes was a stack of pastries I would have normally dove into by now. “Until this idea hit me one night last week.”
My butt shifted in the chair again, as though I were sitting on needles instead of upholstery. “You expect me to date him for six months, all while being live-streamed for anyone on the planet to watch?”
Mr. Conrad blinked at me. “Isn’t that what I just said?”
“When do we get started?” Brooks set down his empty cup and scrolled through the calendar on his phone. I couldn’t help but sneak a peek, noticing his daily schedule was fuller than my monthly one.
“Right now.” Mr. Conrad tapped his watch. “I’ve assigned a videographer to the project, and I’ll have him swing by to meet you both today.”
My head was pulsing, along with the rest of my malfunctioning organs. “Wait. He lives in San Francisco. How are we going to ‘date’ when he lives on the other side of the country?”
Brooks pulled up a contact in his phone and punched in a text. “Thanks for the concern, sweetheart.” From his voice, it was a term of anti-endearment. “But I’ll have my real estate agent find me a temporary apartment here for the duration of our courtship. Although I might want to make sure there’s a potential for ownership once I get the job.”
The arrogance projecting off of him was nauseating. To think I’d spent the past thirty days staring at my phone, trying to will it to ring . . .
“Three months. I’ll do it for three months.”
I was as surprised by my acquiescence as they were, based on the looks on their faces.
Mr. Conrad tore off a piece of bear claw he’d swiped from the top of the pastry pile. “Three months isn’t long enough for a person to fall in love. It wouldn’t be fair to Brooks.”
“Three months is plenty of time to fall in love with someone. If they’re the right one.” I smiled innocently between the two of them and waited.
“Three months is long enough to convince a person to think they’re in love.” Brooks set down his phone, twisting in his chair so he was facing me dead-on. “That’s more than enough time for you to fall for me.”
Revolt stirred inside me. Along with something else I was not as keen to assign a name to. Especially with the precarious situation I was about to be thrust into with him.
“I’d really rather it be six months,” Mr. Conrad said. “To drag out the ratings as long as possible.”
“Drag it out too long, and you’ll lose your following. Three months is the perfect amount of time.” Brooks glanced at Mr. Conrad. “Trust me.”
Debating it for all of two seconds, Mr. Conrad nodded. “Three months it is.”
I about snapped my poor pencil again. What the hell was this? Some kind of boys’ club? That might have been the case in the news world an eon ago, but it was not the way the game was played now.
I was going to show him. Both of them. I was going to prove that I was right and that a woman could believe in romance and true love and still be a powerful force in her chosen career field.
It was open season on the douchecanoes of the world, and Brooks North was the first target in my crosshairs.
Shoving out of my chair, I tucked my pencil into my purse and started to leave the conference room. But not before snagging one of the cherry strudels from the pastry pile. For later. When my chocolate croissant wasn’t staging a revolt and the reality of what I’d agreed to set in and I required the comfort that only a doughy, sugary edible could provide. “I’ve got an article on deadline. If there are any more details I need to be aware of, I can be reached by email.”
Brooks rose from his chair, buttoning his jacket. For a moment, I thought he was doing so in the old-fashioned way a gentleman would rise whenever a woman in the room did. Then I reminded myself who I was dealing with.
The antithesis of the gentleman.
He clasped hands with Mr. Conrad as he headed for the door behind me. “Charles, always a pleasure.”
“I have them preparing an office for you as we speak. As soon as it’s ready, I’ll let you know.”
I froze with my hand on the doorknob. “He gets an office? A freelancer?”
Space in Manhattan came at a premium, and private offices were more coveted than personal drivers these days. Not even I got an office.
“A cubicle will be fine. Wouldn’t want anyone to get the impression I’m being given special favors.” Brooks slid his phone into his pants pocket, moving closer in the kind of way that made my heart skip a beat too many given my disdain for the specimen creeping closer.
“You’ve got a long road ahead of you, Brooks. I don’t envy you.” Mr. Conrad wagged his finger between the two of us. “Might want to put a florist on speed dial and keep the ego in check. Don’t let her articles and outlook on love fool you. Hannah doesn’t let just any guy into her life.”
A low-timbered chuckle vibrated in Brook’s chest. “Oh no. I’m sure she’s very discerning.”
Biting my tongue, I threw open the door and left the conference room.
From cubicle city, Quinn’s head peeked over the top of hers, a phone tucked to her ear. When she saw the look on my face, her smile fell.
“What’s wrong?” she mouthed.
I answered with a quick shake of my head. This wasn’t the time. I could tell her tonight with she stopped by my place for movie night. Right now, I needed to focus on not flinging my laptop through the nearest window.
When I reached my cubicle, I ducked inside, more collapsing than sitting into my chair. What had happened to my life? Running into One-Night Stand in my workplace was enough to ruffle a girl’s feathers, but realizing I was going up against him for my dream job? And, no big deal, we were going to be the stars in some dating show, broadcast to the world, that ended with whoever proved their love theory being the winner of said dream job?
I knew now I wasn’t dreaming. Only because my dreams were never this unbelievable.
“Question? What type of flowers do you like?”
I jolted so hard, the strudel went flying from my hand. Into the garbage can. Dieting by accident.
Trying to ignore the dark suit hovering beside my cubicle, I busied myself with powering up my laptop.
“Never mind. Your eyes say it all.”
“If you read in my eyes that the only kind of flowers between the two of us will be the ones I drop on the grave of your career, then you’d be correct.” My eyes narrowed at the computer screen.
“Boxers or briefs?”
He was looking for a reaction. I would give him one.
“I know you’re just trying to get under my skin. It won’t work.” I wasn’t looking at him, but I could feel his stare.
“I already got into your pants. I think I’m up to the task of getting into or under just about anything of yours.”
My head whipped in his direction, checking to make sure no was passing by who might have heard that. “Fine. Briefs. Tight ones.” My words were acid in verbal form. “Dusted with itching powder.”
Brooks leaned into the wall of my cubicle, his gaze scanning the contents inside. When he spotted my embroidered frame picture that read, “You Can’t Please Everyone. You’re Not Pizza,” he lifted his brow at me.
“I’ll stick with what I wore last time. You seemed to be a fan of ripping those off of me.” He grinned like a demon as he turned to walk away.
Bursting up from my chair, my fists balled together, “I’m getting that job, you know that?”
One dark brow carved into his forehead before he disappeared from sight. “But first, you’ve got to get through me.”