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With a Prince: Missed Connections #2 by Jeffe Kennedy (1)

~ 1 ~

Juliet – m4w (Chicago) I know I could be you’re Romeo, if you’ll just give me another chance. I’ve changed. Losing you was the wake-up call I needed. I’m willing to grovel. Just make that call. You know where to find me. Always as you wish. Your prince.

I allowed myself a little dreamy sigh over that one. The reference to The Princess Bride was a particularly nice touch, and mostly made up for the your/you’re confusion. And he was willing to grovel! At least he paid attention, and was at least trying to change. He got the wake-up call and still loved her. She should appreciate that. So many people didn’t appreciate what they had.

Look at all the people in this L car, so many frowning or sad. Of course, that could come from being crowded in with the evening commuter traffic. Or that the train car smelled bad, as they all do. Exhaust, dirty snow, the peculiar mix of plastic parkas and good leather, on top of that weird sour smell pervasive in all trains, no matter how clean, like vomit and spilled beer.

Reading between the lines of the ad, it seemed that she must have loved this guy at some point. Probably still did. Maybe they had been living together and something happened. He slept with another girl and—ugh. No infidelity. Never an excuse for that. He… was a workaholic. Yes, working so hard at his job, long hours, weekends, all to save up and buy that diamond ring for her, maybe put a down payment on a pretty townhouse in Oak Park. A nice place to raise the kids they’d have. But he forgot to pay attention to her and she thought, oh, she thought he didn’t love her anymore. Maybe she suspected him of screwing around with someone prettier, smarter, more fun.

So she threw him out. Maybe he came home late one night. Way too late, but with that ring in his pocket! He’d planned to make her breakfast in bed and propose, but she’d put all his stuff on the sidewalk, refused to speak to him. And he’d gone away, crushed, desperate to find a way to make her listen…

Some women were like that—refusing to just listen to the explanation. Or they pretended to listen, but then still stayed mad. Like my housemate, Charley, swearing revenge on me for the way I’d tricked her into dating Daniel, when I’d tried to explain that I did it for her happiness.

Okay, maybe for a bit of vicarious happiness on my part, but still…

The thing is, people don’t do things for no reason at all. Charley hadn’t been giving Daniel a chance and you have to do that. Like when Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice read Darcy’s letter and finally understood everything. What if he’d never written that letter? What if she’d been horrible and thrown it out or burned it without reading it? It all would have ended right there. Darcy would have married that sickly cousin. Lydia would have been abandoned by Wickham and likely become a prostitute.

(Austen never says so explicitly, of course, but a modern woman knows perfectly well what “ruined” meant back then.)

And Lizzie… well, she would have become an old maid, wouldn’t she? Alone in her virginal bed for the rest of her life. Not unlike Jane Austen herself, but let’s not go there.

Too close to home.

That’s why—if it ever happens for me—I would always listen to the explanation, always give a guy another chance. Even with Charley swearing a vengeance to fit the crime, I refused to close myself off to possibilities. Which meant I had to be vigilant and clever. She might act like a ditzy drama queen, but Charley had a super sharp brain and she’d absorbed all the dramatic arcs of the shows she played in and studied at school. Here she’d ended up—happily!—with Daniel Holt, catch of the century, but she couldn’t let go of it, that I’d gone behind her back. The whole mystery had all just been so romantic. And she’d fallen for it, the enigma, the clues. I would have eaten that up, if anyone cared enough about me to set me up with the guy who turned out to be the One. Daniel was totally her One.

My prince, my true love would find me, too. I knew it in my heart. He could be right around the corner, looking for me. There had to be a hundred people in this one car, so he could be here somewhere. Not that older man with the newspaper over his face. There was a younger guy in a hoodie, a few seats down on the opposite side, earbuds in and face bowed over his phone, thumbs working non-stop. He’d been there when I got on and I still hadn’t seen his face. Still, with those skinny jeans, fringed holes showing skin at his knees, he seemed more like a high school kid, so no go there. And obviously not that little boy across from me standing between his mom’s knees, though he was super cute.

He had his bright button eyes fixed on my tablet—or maybe on the pink sparkly skin I’d put on it. I waved my fingers at him and he didn’t even look at me. He reached for the tablet, though, his mom absently tightening her grip on his parka sleeve, though she never looked up from her book. Kind of sad, that she wasn’t paying more attention to her adorable kid.

She looked tired, though, like my mom had always been. Maybe she was a single mom, too.

Oh, Marcia, just play a little while with your dolls while mommy has a nap.

I’ll make supper in a minute. How about an Eggo waffle? You love those.

Mommy has a headache, so no TV, okay? Go draw or read a book.

My mom had been a good mom. Still was. We talked pretty much every day. She got lonely with me out of the house. And, of course, she hadn’t ever married. She’d have to date to do that. Frankly I couldn’t quite see how she’d even dated my dad long enough to conceive me, she’s that much of an introvert. From the little she’d ever said about him, he’d been a charming guy, also way too young, who romanced and seduced her and went on his way. A tale as old as time and a great cautionary one.

Don’t give up your virginity to the first cute boy who charms you. You get that diamond ring on your finger before you let him do anything. I mean anything at all.

I didn’t need a ring—necessarily—to give up my virginity. But I absolutely wanted to wait to be in love. That’s part of why the Rules work for me. Charley and Ice made them up to keep themselves from scraping the bottom of the barrel, sexually speaking, but I use them to remind myself to wait for the One. If I ever meet a man who is a five-pointer for me? Then I’ll know.

They think I’m picky, I know that. And I am. A perfect score is a rare and beautiful thing.

The little boy, after one last futile tug and reach for my tablet, screwed up his face, turned an astonishing shade of puce, and let out a piercing scream that nearly made me drop my tablet. The man under the newspaper woke with a start and a crash of paper. The businesswoman in the seat next to me made a sound of irritation and got up, moving to stand near the door. The boy’s mom looked up from her book and gave the frowning people around her an apologetic smile.

“Sorry!” she said to everyone in general, and gathered the little boy on her lap, soothing him in some other language. Hoodie guy on the other side of them finally looked up, the kid’s screams apparently enough to penetrate even the noise-cancellation. He gave the little boy a crooked grin that him sticking a thumb in his mouth, staring somberly with tearful eyes.

Then hoodie guy looked at me, and oh! My heart actually jittered.

He was beautiful. And just like a prince. Golden curls stood out against the deep green hoodie, not too long, but just enough for one to tumble across his forehead. A face like an angel, with blue eyes the color of a perfect summer twilight. Square jaw—clean shaven, which I greatly prefer—and really nice lips. Almost a perfect bow, like in the storybooks, but still manly. Even the bright green earbuds now dangling around his neck somehow added to the overall effect.

He smiled at me, and I felt exactly like that toddler, wanting to stick my thumb in my mouth and just gaze back with the same awe. His right front tooth had a little chip, just enough to make that perfect face human. Not an angel, but a gorgeous man.

One who was getting up, coming toward me, and—omigod—sitting next to me, in the now empty seat. “No one’s sitting here, right?” he asked in a low voice, like music. “A little noisy over there. I hope you don’t mind.”

I shook my head, thumbing the screen of my tablet for something to do, then instantly regretted it when the Missed Connections ad popped up, filling the screen. I hit the side button to kill the screen—a handy habit for when someone came into my cubicle and caught me reading just one more page at work—but he’d already angled his head and caught sight of it.

“Missed Connections, huh?” He nudged me with a shoulder. “Are you looking or being looked for?”

My throat had gone totally dry and my face so hot it might burst. I couldn’t look at him because I’d probably turned a brighter shade of red than the tantruming toddler. I muttered some negation. Even I didn’t know what I said.

“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to be a creeper or anything. I just kind of love those ads, you know? I always start thinking up stories about the people. It’s romantic.”

Who was this guy? And why the hell was he paying attention to me? I’m not ugly, but I’m not as skinny as I could be, and I’m seriously not the kind of girl who attracts beautiful young men into sitting next to her on the L.

“Okay, I’m clearly bothering you. I’ll move to another seat.” He looked around the crowded train, his previous spot now taken. “Or stand.”

“No,” I blurted. “I mean, it’s okay. I, ah, just…”

“Didn’t necessarily want some rando looking over your shoulder at your private business.” He grinned, ducking his head to catch a glimpse of my face. I gave him a fast smile, close-lipped so I wouldn’t say anything silly, and stared at the dark tablet again. Which, stupid, there’s nothing to look at there.

“I’m Gabriel,” he said, and held out a hand to shake mine.

Making myself release the death grip on the tablet—relax already, Marcia—I shook it. His hands were warm and soft, with elegant fingers. I met his eyes this time. Oh, double wow. Those golden lashes around the blue. And he smelled good. Not overpowering like those horrible body sprays the guys my age seem to think are so appealing. (They’re not. Don’t get me started on all the things wrong with those formulas.)

He smelled like honey. The dark, raw kind. Something complex and multi-layered. I wanted to lean in, close my eyes and absorb it. A shaving soap, maybe? If so, I didn’t recognize it, and I know most of them. Because that’s my thing, naturally. The Rules might cover the five criteria, but scent is mine. Technically it falls under chemistry—which means sex to Charley and Ice—but for me it’s all about what a guy smells like. It’s number one for me.

1.   Chemistry/scent. He has to smell good. And not fake good, either. I’m in the perfume industry, so I’m not going to say he has to be au naturel, but he needs to choose a good soap, one that complements his body chemistry. Plus a subtle aftershave that harmonizes with the soap. No halitosis or B.O. No overwhelming detergent fragrances in his clothes. Nothing is more disconcerting than a guy wearing a musk cologne with woodsy notes and clothes that reek of some cheap uber-floral laundry soap. Or those dryer sheets! I swear, most people—but especially guys—never think about the blend of all the fake scents they pile on. Pick one fragrance family, folks, and stick with it. It’s not that hard. Gabriel—solid perfect score for scent. I’d give him a five overall just for that, if it wasn’t against the Rules.

2.   Taste. Most people don’t realize how much taste depends on smell. I had a friend in high school who was, for all intents and purposes, anosmic. Most likely it was because he had terrible allergies as a kid, with consequent sinus issues, and he functionally killed his cilia. Congenital anosmia is terribly rare, because scent is our oldest sense. It goes all the way back to single cells and detection of chemicals outside the cellular wall. Amoebae have chemo-detection, but no sight or sound. Our olfactory receptors go straight to the brain, not with extended relays like sight and sound have. That’s part of why memory is deeply connected to scent, because they’re both in the same core part of the brain. So it’s really hard to be high functioning and be truly anosmic, like someone might be blind or deaf—there would be too much associated brain damage. My friend, though, he was functionally anosmic, so his taste was all wacky. Like coffee and chocolate just tasted full-out bitter to him, with no nuance. Julie, my housemate who’s a chef, can talk a lot about the role of scent in food. Anyway, taste is all about scent for me. I figure if he smells good, he tastes good. That gave Gabriel a score of 2.0 already, which is enough to advance to round two, according to the Rules. If I was going to go out on a date with a strange guy, which I wasn’t. Not that he’d ask.

3.   Rhythm. I really don’t care if the guy can dance, because I can’t dance. So I use this one for personality, which the other gals tend to gloss over. But things like humor, honesty, and integrity are important. To me that’s a kind of rhythm. Zero points because I didn’t know this guy from Adam.

4.   Touch. Really nice touch. His hand holding mine… I couldn’t think. For the first time I understood Charley’s issues with math because I’d lost the count.

5.   Looks. Normally how handsome a guy is doesn’t matter that much to me. After all, it’s not like I’m any great beauty. And I don’t care if he’s a little pudgy or out of shape. Again, I’m not going to throw stones in that department. My future didn’t look too promising in the looks direction, either, judging by my genetic forecast. Even if my mom wanted to date again, she’d have to probably shape up some. Not that she was obese, but we definitely tend to pear-shape—wide hips, heavy thighs, disappearing waist line. I’m not like Amy, who runs every morning and is in killer shape, and God knows I’m nothing like Charley with her amazing body. But, as she’s always saying, looking great is her job, so she works at it. I work out (sometimes) and watch what I eat (mostly), but let’s just say I’m no size six. I don’t expect anyone else to be either, but this guy—definitely a full point for looks.

So that had him at 3 or 4 points, right there. He could have been a model, he was so beautiful. Or a movie star—

The realization hit me hard, and I yanked my hand out of his. His expression went quizzical and he looked at his fingers. “Is there something on my hand?” He flicked his fingers, bemused, grinning again. “It’s cold out, but I’ve been on the train since Evanston and—”

“You’re an actor,” I said, no doubt in my mind. Oh, I had his number.

“How did you know?” His delighted smile immediately dimmed. “I’m guessing this is not a good thing in your book.”

“Charley put you up to this.” My heart, which had been tripping along so happily, thudded to a dreary ache. Full of dirty slush like the stuff splattered on the windows.

“Who’s Charlie?”

“Oh, just stop.” The train shuddered to a halt, and I realized I’d somehow missed my station anyway. Head in the clouds, Marcia. Always dreaming.

I pushed past Gabriel, who scrambled to stand, but I couldn’t go anywhere as the doors hadn’t opened yet. All those already grumpy people pushed and muttered, several asking what the deal was. Of course the train had chosen this moment to bork up.

Gabriel put a hand on my arm, then yanked it back and spread his fingers in a dramatic gesture of surrender when I glared at him. Just like Charley would. I should have smelled theater on him the minute I spotted him.

“Don’t run off,” he said. “I’ll move seats.”

“It’s my stop,” I snapped back. “And you can drop the charade. I know Charley sent you.”

He assumed an expression—likely well-practiced—of innocent bewilderment and slowly shook his head. “I have zero idea who this Charlie guy is, but if he’s bothering you, you should say so. You know, get someone to walk you from your L stop.”

“Let me guess. You’re volunteering.” The train lurched a few feet and halted again, throwing everyone against each other—including me into Gabriel. He caught and steadied me, which only made me angry. “Get your hands off me!”

He let go, but the renewed press of the crowd had us so mushed together that it made no difference. Someone shouted about what the hell was going on and the L operator came on with some loudspeaker-distorted explanation no one could understand.

“Maybe you should sit again,” Gabriel said, over all the people asking each other what the driver had said.

“No, thank you,” I said frostily. Finally, finally, the doors wrenched open, people shoving to get out. I turned back to Gabriel, ready to give my parting shot now that I could escape. “I’ll tell Charley that it totally worked and you suckered me in and stomped on my heart, okay? That way you can get whatever she bribed you with and this stupid revenge can be done.”

I plunged out the doors, my grand exit spoiled when my high-heeled boot skidded in the slush that was turning back into ice. Not a great day to wear them, but I have a weakness for boots and these were new. Electric blue pleather and higher heels than I was used to. Amy had talked me into buying them, overriding my usual good sense. Fortunately I regained my balance, keeping my head high and my dignity intact.

I even managed not to look back at the train until it lurched into motion again, shuddering with a great screech to match that little kid’s. Then I couldn’t resist. And there was Gabriel—if that was even his name, because it was a little too on the nose—watching me. He pushed off his hoodie and pretended to sweep an invisible cap off his head, bowing gallantly.

Oh brother. Charley really had to step up her game if she wanted to sucker me in. I gave him the finger, and stalked away.

Round goes to pudgy, virginal Marcia.

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