Monroe Lila - Bet Me - - PDF Free Download (2024)

BET ME A ROMANTIC COMEDY

LILA MONROE

LILA MONROE BOOKS

CONTENTS Copyright Bet Me From Lila 1.

Lizzie

2. Lizzie 3. New Year’s Eve: 3 Years Ago 4. Still New Year’s Eve 5. Jake 6. Lizzie 7. Lizzie 8. Lizzie 9. Lizzie 10. Lizzie 11. Lizzie 12. Lizzie 13. Jake 14. Lizzie 15. Lizzie 16. Lizzie 17. Lizzie 18. Jake 19. Lizzie 20. Lizzie 21. Jake 22. Lizzie 23. Lizzie 24. Lizzie 25. Lizzie 26. Lizzie 27. Jake 28. Lizzie 29. Lizzie 30. Lizzie 31. Lizzie 32. Jake 33. Lizzie 34. Three Months Later Get Lucky 1.

Julia

2. Nate The Billionaire Bargain

The Billionaire Game Billionaire With a Twist Rugged Billionaire About the Author

Copyright 2017 by Lila Monroe Cover Design: Mayhem Designs All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including emailing, photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

BET ME

WHAT HAPPENS when your sex strike goes viral -- and suddenly every man in town has their eye on your prize? All I wanted was little old-fashioned romance. After a parade of Tinder disasters who think chivalry is giving me a pearl necklace on the first date, I made a pledge: until guys step up their game, my goods are off the market. But one bottle of chardonnay later, and my drunken rant has gone viral. I’m the most famous person NOT having sex since the Jonas Brothers put on their purity rings. A men’s magazine has even put a bounty on my (ahem) maidenhead: fifty Gs to whoever makes me break the drought. Be careful what you wish for... Now my office looks like an explosion in a Hallmark factory, I’ve got guys lining up to sweep me off my feet - and the one man I want is most definitely off-limits. Jake Weston is a player through and through. He’s also the only one who sees through the mayhem to the real me, but how can I trust he’s not just out to claim the glory? And how will I make it through the strike without scratching the itch - especially when that itch looks so damn good out of his suit? The thrill of the chaste has never been so sexy in Lila Monroe’s hilarious, hot new romantic read!

FROM LILA

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For all the hopeless romantics - and the hopeful ones, too.

1 LIZZIE

YOU KNOW what they say about a guy’s hands. No, not that myth about dick size. I mean, that’s what they might say, but I can confirm with an almost scientific certainty that hands don’t lie. Guys with great hands—hands with fingers that can tease concertos out of a piano, or that have the light, sure touch necessary to make life-saving incisions with a scalpel—it’s hands like that that will make you come your brains out. I mean, some girls are into arms, or abs, or the way a guy’s happy trail leads down his stomach, but me? I’m all about the hands. So there’s a part of me that’s both impressed and horrifyingly turned on as I watch Colin’s near-surgical approach to tearing the chicken meat off one Super Sizzling Sweet Sauce-slathered chicken wing after another. Be careful what you wish for. “Sure you don’t want any? It’s two-for-one,” Colin grins through a mouthful of chicken. “I’ve got a coupon and everything.” “Thanks, I’m good,” I say weakly, watching those gorgeous, elegant hands smear barbecue sauce across his chin. So this is where a Sunday afternoon spent swiping right on cute dudes without bothering to read their profiles can land you come Monday evening. I pick up my glass of warm chardonnay and try not to grimace. Not that he’d notice. I’m fighting to be heard in a packed sports bar just off of Times Square, where “the game” plays at an ear-splitting volume on an endless series of flat-screens, and the beer is served at such frigid temperatures that you almost forget that you’re drinking something that would taste like piss if it happened to be warm. “What in the f*ck was that?” Colin yells suddenly, his hands flying up in tandem with every other dude in the bar—solo dudes who clearly didn’t have the balls or the enterprising nature to combine Monday Night Football with a Tinder date. “Sorry, sorry—I just can’t believe this ref,” he says, finally turning away from the screens. He shoots me a bashful smile, exposing a set of blindingly white teeth. “So

what’s your name again?” He downs his beer in one gulp and lets out an almighty belch. Guys these days are so charming that I can hardly stand it. Colin grabs another chicken wing like his life depends on it before pulling the meat from the bone and shoving it in his mouth. Before I can answer, he keeps talking, his mouth full of dead bird. “So tell me more about this . . . what? Art sh*t, you said?” His brow crinkles, as though the task of recalling the few details I’ve ponied up about my life so far is about to give him a stroke. “You’re really into that stuff, huh? Old movies? My mom can’t get enough of them. I don’t know what she sees in those old dudes, though. Cary Grant? I mean, that stuff’s from the dark ages. TV is where it’s at. Have you seen Ballers? Now that’s a great f*cking show . . . Oh sh*t!” he yells out, jumping to his feet like he’s been electrocuted, and his hip knocks into the table upending his entire glass of beer . . . in my lap. Talk about a cold shower. I grab a pile of napkins off the table and start dabbing at my dress. This is definitely my cue to hightail it the hell out of here before something even worse happens. And let’s be brutally honest: I’m pretty much lonely and horny enough that three more chardonnays might wind up with me being poked and prodded like another juicy wing by the end of the night. “Great to meet you, Colin,” I say sweetly, my cheeks hurting from the fake smile plastered across my face. I push my chair back from the table, the peanut shells littering the bar floor crunching beneath my heels. Colin may not have a romantic bone in his impressively-toned body, but there is no way in hell that I’m even going to consider hooking up with a guy who dares to blaspheme Cary Grant in my presence. After all, a girl has to have standards. A look of confusion flits across his face. “Wait . . . you’re leaving? But the game’s not over yet!” Oh, it’s definitely over. “Yeah, I’m sorry,” I say, “but I have to get up early for work tomorrow. Let me know how it ends?” “Sure,” he says slowly. “And maybe we can do this again sometime?” He co*cks his head to the side and gives me an earnest smile, as if he has no idea that I can’t wait to get the hell out of there. “I mean, this was fun, right?” Oh sure. Like going to the dentist is fun. Like being trapped in a Turkish prison is fun . . .

I don’t answer, turn around, and keep walking until I’m out the door. Miraculously, my Uber arrives almost right away and soon I’m slumped in the backseat, watching the twinkling lights of the Brooklyn Bridge flash by outside the window as we cross over the water from Manhattan. The worst part is, I’d give that date a six. I mean, compared to the disasters I’ve been on, he’s practically a knight in shining armor. Remembered my name? Check. All his own hair? Check. Didn’t paw me in the coat-check line? Give this guy a medal and call it true love. God, I’ve been dating in this town way too long. At least New York will always make me feel better, even after the worst of bad dates —and I’ve definitely had my share lately. I try not to think about my track record until I’m home and can pour myself another glass of wine from an open bottle in the fridge and sink down into the couch, pulling my red heels off and throwing them across the room. It’s not like they have far to go because my apartment is literally the size of a shoe box. A charming shoe box with exposed brick walls, windows overlooking Prospect Park, and a fire escape where I leave bowls of food for the neighbor’s white Persian kitty (that I am slowly in the process of catnapping). Everyone has to have a hobby, right? But hey, it could be a lot worse. At least I don’t have a roommate—or five. Before I moved to Brooklyn from Toledo, Ohio, where I grew up, I pictured my first apartment as this charming, bohemian space where I’d store my Manolos in the oven a la Carrie Bradshaw and host glamorous parties like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But Manolos are hard to come by on an assistant curator’s salary, even at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fact, I’ve yet to have a single person over, much less an excuse to throw any kind of wild, Hepburn-esque soiree where people pass out face down on the floor while yelling “Timber!” Ever since the breakup with Todd, aka the man I thought was the love of my life, I’ve been too dejected and heartbroken to do much dating at all—until recently, that is. And just look how that’s turning out. I reach over and grab my laptop off the floor and pull up Facebook, feeling better as I click to video message and the image of my sister, Jess, appears on the screen, looking none of her thirty-five years, with what looks like oatmeal smeared across one cheek. Even though she still basically resembles a college student (Botox), she always seems completely stressed out, which is not exactly surprising considering the fact

that she’s raising two toddlers, Amelia, fourteen months (light of my life), and Jackson, three (devil’s spawn), while trying to start her own internet business selling coffee mugs with the hashtags #Blessed and #Basic printed on them. When I asked her what she wanted for her birthday this year, she told me, “I want to check into a hotel for the night, order room service, and eat French fries while watching reality TV until I’m f*cking comatose. Then I want to sleep for sixteen hours.” Motherhood is a joy. “Lizzie, babe, what’s up?” she asks. “Oh my god,” I say, reaching over and taking a sip of my wine, then pulling my legs beneath me so I can sit cross legged. “I just had the worst date ever.” Jess reaches one arm off screen, presumably to shove some goopy homemade concoction in Amelia’s mouth, a smile twitching at the corner of her lips. “Ooh. Details. Gimme.” “You don’t want to know.” “Please. I spent my day inventing elaborate fairytales to make my kids take their antibiotics. Remind me what adults even do, please.” “Watch a stranger devour hot wings in a crappy sports bar while completely ignoring their date?” “Ouch,” she winces, before her attention is yanked away. “Jackson! We don’t strangle the dog!” “Why are the kids still up?” I ask, fully aware that my sister hates to be off schedule. She runs her house like a military base—or a high-end prison. “Don’t ask,” she sighs as she holds out a spoon to my niece. “Richard’s working late and my night just went to sh*t. Amelia, open your mouth, sweetie,” Jess coos before turning back to the screen with an exasperated look. “Why does she hate pureed parsnips,” she mutters in exasperation, mostly to herself, “and why do you waste your time with these losers anyway?” “What else am I supposed to do?” I moan. “Tinder is the only way anyone meets up these days, and these guys all look normal enough in their profile. Well, most of them, anyway,” I say, backtracking quickly before she can call me out. “Besides, I wasted my hot twenties on Todd, living in a crappy studio apartment, working that stupid sales job to make his dreams come true, and then he leaves me for his assistant! Now I’m THIRTY and stuck in this Tinder wasteland. I mean, the last three guys I hooked up with all stopped in the middle of sex to come on my tit*! Not one, not two, but all three!” I despair. “Is romance totally dead, Jess? And more

importantly, does my chest have a target painted on it or something?” Jess bursts out laughing, still holding a goop-covered spoon in one hand. I can see Jackson running around behind her in their living room naked like some sort of crazed animal in need of a tranquilizer gun. “Lizzie! Not in front of the kids, okay?” she warns me, grinning. “And it’s not like thirty is even old! I’m thirty-five, you know!” “Yeah, but you’re thirty-five with a husband and two kids living in a gorgeous house in Austin, Texas! I’m thirty with nothing waiting at home for me in the Naked City but this half-bottle of Two Buck Chuck.” I gulp my wine like it’s oxygen, aware that I’m rapidly crossing the line between tipsy and flat out drunk. “I’m literally sobbing for you inside,” she drawls. “I mean, it’s Tinder! What were you expecting? That this guy was going to sweep you off your feet and you’d move into his penthouse in Tribeca and live happily ever after?” I sigh, taking another sip of wine. Not expected. Hoped was more like it. I mean, is it so bad that I still believe there’s a guy out there who might wine and dine me, and also f*ck me like he’s straight out of Magic Mike XXL? Who will send me flowers unexpectedly, leave little love notes in my purse, and bring home a bottle of prosecco just because? The “told ya so” look on my sister’s face answers the question for me with a resounding no. Clearly I’m not going to get much (read: any) sympathy from my own flesh and blood, so the only thing to do is clear—change the subject. “So what’s that on your cheek?” I ask mischievously, one eyebrow raised—a move that took me months to perfect in front of endless Joan Crawford movies. “Did Richard come home early and give you a facial?” Richard’s classically handsome with these waspy, blond-haired, all-American good looks, and is the sweetest guy ever. He’s just . . . how can I put this? Not all that interesting? In fact, talking to him basically produces instant narcolepsy. I have no idea how Jess stays awake long enough to f*ck him. She must recite the alphabet backwards or something. “Oh my god,” she says, literally recoiling in horror. “NO! That is so gross! We would . . . I would . . . never!” she stammers, her face the color of a summer tomato. “Never is a mighty long time, Sis,” I say with a wicked smile. “You should try it. What’s the worst that could happen—you might actually have a good time?” “You’re completely depraved,” she shoots back, practically sputtering now. “Richard and I have a normal sex life,” she insists. “Normal. We would never do . . . any of that!”

See, what did I tell you? She’s definitely reciting the alphabet when he f*cks her. Or counting ceiling tiles. Besides, I love making my sister squirm. It’s kind of like shooting fish in a barrel: a direct hit every time. “Relax,” I laugh. “You’re probably getting more action than me, even if it is on a schedule. Seven p.m. bath-time, seven-thirty p.m. bedtime stories,” I tease. “Eight to eight-fifteen, conjugal intimacy.” “I hate you.” Jess scowls, but she’s laughing. “And I’ll have you know, it’s more like eight to eight-thirty.” “Go Richard!” I cheer. “Who’d have thought the man had it in him?” AFTER WE HANG UP, I’m still not tired, even though I have to be up early, so I grab the remote and switch on the TV. When Jess and I were kids, before our parents finally split, I was dumped in front of the television practically every day after school while they had it out in the kitchen. As a result, TCM kind of became my best friend, and I still find it comforting to disappear into the fantasy land on screen: a world where the women are strong and sassy and well-dressed, and the men really know how to treat a lady. A little champagne with dinner? Yes, please. For once, I’m in luck—An Affair to Remember is on, lighting up the screen in glorious Technicolor. As I watch Cary Grant tenderly push back Deborah Kerr’s flame-colored hair from her celestial face, I settle back into the cushions, pulling my feet underneath me. Now this is more like it. Waiting at the top of the Empire State Building for hours in the freezing cold for the woman you love, AND pining for her for years after she didn’t show up? That was romance. Coming on a lady’s chest halfway through sex? Please. I roll my eyes at the thought, draining my glass of wine and setting it down on the floor before curling up with my grandmother’s purple knitted afghan. Cary Grant would never pull that sh*t.

2 LIZZIE

WHEN I WALK into the museum the next morning, the sound of my boots clattering against the marble floors tells me I’m definitely hungover. Ouch. But even through my pounding headache, I still get the same kick as always, passing through the main hall with its gilded ceiling and ornate details. The Met is one of the greatest museums in the world, home to amazing works of art and culture, right on the edge of Central Park. I would come here all the time when I first moved to the city, just wandering the halls and taking in a new exhibition every other weekend. Todd always scoffed at it, saying I was obsessed with the past, but he never understood it wasn’t about the artifacts, but the stories they told. A thousand different cultures over hundreds of years, all asking the same questions about life and love and our place in the world. The day I landed my assistant curator position, it felt like my life was finally back on track—I was doing something just for me, after spending so long following his plan. But today, I barely give the grand staircase a second glance. Nope, I’m in emergency mode: heading straight for the basem*nt in search of my next fix. O coffee machine, where art thou? A whistle pierces straight through my skull. “Someone had fun last night.” I groan. Our head of corporate PR, Bernard, is at the espresso machine, whipping up something perfect and espresso-adjacent. As usual, he’s impeccably tailored in Italian cashmere and slacks. I hate him for being sober right now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t grovel to get what I need. “How much do you love me?” I say with a begging face. He takes pity on me. “Enough to stop you making a fool of yourself. Here.” “Angel.” I grab the tiny cup and gulp it down in one, then hold it out beseechingly. He sighs. “Just one more, then I’m cutting you off. You’ve got a problem.” “Sure,” I lie. “Whatever you say.”

He sets the machine on again, then checks his phone. “sh*t, I’ve got a donor call. Remember, just one more.” He pauses. “And, umm, maybe do something about that.” He gestures vaguely at my whole body before he heads off. I don’t blame him. My reflection in the silver espresso machine shows a pastyfaced ghoul staring back at me, so I reach into my purse for a tube of red lipstick, drawing it carefully across my lips. It’s a trick I learned when I moved to the city— red lipstick forgives all sins. You know, like on mornings after I’ve consumed half a bottle of wine while lamenting the death of romance. I pour another espresso, knowing I’ll be back for more before noon, then navigate the narrow staircase that leads to my basem*nt lair. The main museum itself is all airy hallways and massive exhibition rooms, but behind the scenes, it’s a different story: a warren-like maze of back rooms and storage closets. When they first showed me to my office, a low-ceilinged box in the corner of the basem*nt, I thought it was some kind of joke. Hazing for the newbie on her first day. But now that I’ve settled in, I kind of like it. The ventilation pipes only rumble every half hour or so, and I decorated the walls with framed prints from classic Hollywood films like Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story, and my big bookcase is jammed with artifacts depicting love and romance through the ages. What can I say? I’m a nerd when it comes to ancient courtship rituals. I’m just opening my laptop when Skye, my intern, comes bounding into the room. Well, “bounding” may be stretching it a bit since she’s wearing a pair of wedge sandals so high I’m surprised she doesn’t get a nosebleed just walking to work. With her long blond hair and curvy figure, she resembles a modern-day Veronica Lake, complete with that trademark swoosh of hair falling over one of her big green eyes. I would hate her if she wasn’t so naïve. It’s hard to hold a grudge against a girl who thinks the guy who picked her up in a bar last night is a big-shot photographer who, like, is totally going to make her a star now that she’s done a private naked modeling shoot for him. “Hey Skye,” I yawn. “Did you get any memos through? I need to catch up before the staff meeting in case Morgan picks on me again.” “Never mind memos,” she announces breathlessly. “Did you hear the news? Jake Weston is back!” Crap. Jake Weston. The name alone is enough to make my skin prickle with irritation. Jake is a freelance “finder,” which means that he travels the world tracking down artifacts for museums, antique hounds, and private clients. If a basketball star wants a limited edition sneaker, Jake will find it. Front-row tickets to Hamilton on a moment’s notice? Jake’s your guy.

But the only interaction I’ve had with him so far has been over email, where “condescending” doesn’t even begin to cover it. His favorite phrase is “Well, actually . . .” For some reason, every time I open his missives, I picture him as some tight-ass, fifty-year-old guy with rapidly thinning hair. Apparently, he’s been in Thailand recently, tracking down some rare statue of a golden monkey, and I guess he’s finally back. Good thing, too, because as much as he annoys me, he’s going to be indispensible in locating a few key pieces I need for the Golden Age of Hollywood exhibit I’ve finally managed to talk my boss into. “Did you hear what I said?” Lizzie’s voice cuts through the thoughts in my head, which is still pounding like crazy in spite of the coffee. “He’s back!” “I’ll alert the media,” I say dryly, closing my laptop. I’m clearly not going to get anything done with Skye blabbing at me a hundred miles an hour. “The staff meeting is scheduled to start in five minutes,” she says in a slightly disapproving tone, putting her hands on her hips and assuming the pose of a sexybut-pissed-off third grade teacher. “Morgan asked me to make sure you were on your way since you were so late for last week’s meeting.” “I was two minutes over!” She shrugs. “Don’t shoot the messenger. God, I’m tired,” she yawns prettily, as I check email then grab my folder of notes for the meeting. “I worked at The Box till three last night. I’m trying out this new routine where I’m suspended from the ceiling and then lowered into a champagne glass filled with whipped cream. You would not believe how long it takes to get it all off,” she says with a sigh, as if cleaning dessert off her body every night was absolute torture. Skye moonlights as a burlesque dancer three nights a week at a club downtown. In her initial interview, she told me that either she wants to someday be a) a curator like me or b) Dita Von Teese. Good thing for her that she has plenty of time to decide. “God, what I wouldn’t give to be back in college,” she moans. “I could sleep ’til noon every day and still make it to all of my classes. Those were the days, you know?” she says, her voice tinged with nostalgia that might be poignant if it wasn’t so ridiculous. “You only graduated last year, Skye,” I say, resisting the temptation to roll my eyes. “And can you run and grab me another cup of coffee before the meeting? I had a bit of a late night myself.” As soon as the words leave my mouth, I find myself stifling another yawn. Dammit, why are those things always contagious? “Oooooh!” she squeals, the sound like a jackhammer in my brain. “Your life is so glamorous! Did you have a hot date?”

Let’s see: I woke up still passed out on the couch in the clothes I’d worn the night before, which stank of stale, cheap beer in the worst way possible. Not exactly glamorous. Or hot, for that matter. “Hot? No. A date? Yes,” I say, standing up and stretching my arms overhead and tugging at the big loopy bow at the neck of my blouse, which suddenly feels like it’s strangling me. “Don’t worry,” Skye says, “you’ll totally meet someone. Probably when you least expect it. I mean, that’s how I met Spencer.” Her green eyes widen, and she moves closer, her expression serious as a government official’s while revealing state secrets. “I’d sworn off all guys for at least a week, and then in walks Spencer. He sat in the front row the first night I danced at The Box and picked up my rhinestone thong when I dropped it off the front of the stage during my ‘Star Light, Star Bright’ number, you know? The one with the American flag? Well, we’ve been together ever since,” she says dreamily. I blink at her uncomprehendingly. I’m not awake enough for this sh*t yet. Is ten a.m. too early for a drink? Because a little hair of the dog sounds pretty good right about now. “That sounds . . really romantic, Skye,” I manage to choke out while gathering up my notes on the exhibition. “Oh, it was,” she says, snapping back to reality. “Most guys these days don’t understand romance at all, but Spencer just gets it, you know? The other night, after I brought home Chinese food? He let me pick which fortune cookie I wanted before he did. He knows how much I love cookies!” Oh my god, I think with a sigh. There’s no hope for today’s men. None at all. Skye keeps chattering about Spencer’s amazing romantic gestures (he puts the toilet seat down! Sometimes!) and I zone her out as we head upstairs for the staff meeting. My boss, Morgan, is already standing at the head of the conference room table. We’re still a few minutes early, and the meeting hasn’t even begun, but her expression makes it clear that she’s five minutes past wanting to start. “We’re finally all here,” she says, giving us a pointed look. “So let’s begin.” I slide into a seat and realize too late Skye never got me that fourth cup of coffee. I’m going to have to face this one cold. And cold is the right word: our high priestess and overlord, Morgan, could put those ice queen femme fatales to shame. With her glossy dark hair, steely gaze, and eyebrows penciled into an expression of perpetual disapproval, she keeps our department running like a precision German automobile. From the 1940s.

“Bernard?” she demands sharply. “Updates? We work through the upcoming calendar, touching on all the exhibits in progress. The Met prides itself on an eclectic program, and we have everything from Romanian folk art to a history of Black Pride protest photography. By the time she gets to my Hollywood show, I’m half asleep, but when I hear my name, I snap out of my hungover reverie and sit up straight. “Lizzie is going to be making her debut as lead curator with a show this summer, which is, how should I say, a bit of a departure for the Met,” Morgan says with a condescending smirk. I swallow hard. I’ve been pushing the museum forever to curate an exhibition on the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” and while the fact that Morgan finally said yes is a dream come true for me, I’m also painfully aware that curating the show is my biggest responsibility to date. I’m flying solo in the pilot’s seat for the first time, and I can’t fail if I ever want to move up the food chain at the museum. “I can’t wait to hear what she’s planning,” Morgan continues, icy, “but let’s all congratulate her first on this milestone—which she hopefully won’t make a mess out of.” Everyone giggles in a way that instantly makes me nervous. I stand up and smile to a round of polite applause, imagining lasers beaming down from above, burning through Morgan’s herringbone pantsuit. “Thanks, Morgan, for your confidence in me,” I say, shooting her a smile so saccharine that I’m surprised she doesn’t immediately get diabetes. “I’m really excited about this opportunity,” I continue. “I know Hollywood isn’t our usual focus, but I think that now more than ever, in this age of digital media, where dating apps have largely taken over how people, meet, match, and break up with one another, romance has somehow fallen by the wayside. What I’m aiming to do with the Hollywood exhibition is to explore the movies’ role in evolving romance narratives, showing how they interplay with more traditional courtship traditions, and built on them in the post-war era.” I look around for feedback, but everyone is checking their phones or zoned out, waiting to get the meeting over with. “And as you may have heard,” Morgan interrupts, “Jake Weston arrives this morning to begin working with Lizzie on acquisitions for the show.” Just like that, everyone perks up. The room fills with titters and low chatter, the air buzzing like a beehive that’s just been kicked. I watch as two women who preside over the Egyptian wing bend their heads together, blushing and whispering furiously.

“So let’s all be sure and give him your full cooperation with whatever he may need,” Morgan continues. “Especially you, Lizzie.” She gives me a condescending look. “Jake brings a wealth of experience, and I’m sure you can learn from him.” “Absolutely,” I say through gritted teeth. “Now, as I was saying, about the exhibition—” “No need, we get the picture.” Morgan waves me down dismissively. “Next?” I take a seat again, my blood already starting to boil. What is it with this Jake Weston guy, anyway? And why is he stealing my thunder for the most important moment of my career? AFTER THE MEETING, I head back to my office and get to work. There are a million tiny details to plan for any exhibit, and right now, I’m still in the sourcing phase— trying to figure out what artifacts and pieces I can actually get in time, and how they can work together so the exhibition is more than just stuff sitting in a room. That’s the real key to a great exhibit—everything needs to tell a story or show a different side to the theme, so that people walk away from it actually having learned something they never knew before, or have their perceptions changed. I kick off my shoes and start sending emails, trying to track down not only a film print of Casablanca that I might be able to borrow for the show, but Humphrey Bogart’s infamous trench coat and fedora to place in the exhibit. I’m deep in memorabilia dealers on the west coast when a sharp knock comes at my door. “Wrong place,” I call, without looking up. Nobody knocks around here, which must mean the mail kid is lost again. “Deliveries are at the end of the hall.” But the door swings open and a guy walks in. Not just any guy, but a drop-dead handsome man looking like he stepped out of a frame of a Bogart movie. He’s got the leading-man chiseled jaw, and he’s wearing a dark, slim-cut suit with the jacket stretching across his broad shoulders. Hello, lover. “Um, hi.” I blink. Did this guy take a wrong turn in 1952 and wind up in my office? And can we please close the portal and never send him back? I flush, suddenly wishing I’d at least had time to take a shower this morning. Deodorant spray covers many evils, but right now, I’d give anything to be fresh and bright and wafting the gentle aroma of a summer night’s breeze. I clear my throat. “Can I help you?” “I doubt it.” He strides into the room like he owns it. Suddenly he’s standing in front of my desk and holding out a hand for me to shake, his blue eyes sparkling.

“I’m the one here to rescue your little exhibit.” “Little exhibit?” I repeat, tensing. I guess he brought his mid-century chauvinism with him through the slipstreams of time. “It’s the major show of the summer season. And it doesn’t need rescuing, by you or anyone else. Who are you, anyway?” I ask, gritting my teeth. He looks at me like I should know already. “I’m Jake Weston,” he says. Wait, Jake? Condescending Jake. “Well, actually” Jake. Bane-of-my-inbox-existence Jake? Looks like this? Damn. Talk about a waste of a gorgeous face. “Hi,” I answer, cooler now. He’s got his hand outstretched to shake mine, so I reluctantly take it. “I’m Lizzie.” His grip is cool and firm, but the touch of his palm against mine makes something prickle in the back of my skull. I look at him again, harder. There’s something familiar about him, a sneaking suspicion that tells me that somehow, somewhere, we’ve met before . . . Holy sh*t! It all comes flooding back to me. Whiskey and cold winter air, and the shrieks of New Year’s Eve. I know this guy. Intimately. “Good to meet you,” he says, his face friendly but impassive, his tone so nonchalant that he sounds almost bored. I stare at him incredulously, my mouth falling open slightly. Was my face so completely unmemorable? Or the rest of me, for that matter? Oh my god, I can’t f*cking believe it. I look at him in disbelief, my throat suddenly tight and hot. He doesn’t even remember me. He doesn’t remember the fact that the last time I saw the man standing in front of me and calling himself Jake Weston, he was passing out . . . With his face buried between my legs.

3 NEW YEAR’S EVE: 3 YEARS AGO

“LET’S DO ANOTHER ONE!” I can barely hear Della’s voice over the pounding music from the speakers overhead blasting “Back That Azz Up.” I pick up another shot glass filled with tequila and knock it back, reaching over to lick a sprinkling of salt off the back of Della’s hand before she shoves a lime wedge in my face, tossing her curly blond hair from her shoulders. We’ve been drinking for around two hours now, and things are starting to get fuzzy around the edges, a welcome change from my heartbroken and excessively weepy state. The Alibi is our spot, largely because it’s located down the block from Della’s apartment. The ambiance, if you can call it that, is almost nonexistent, just a few rickety tables scattered here and there and a nicked-up wooden bar that stretches across the length of the room. But the music is loud, the lights are low and the drinks are cheap—and strong. Which is crucial when an asshole lawyer has broken your heart and you’re attempting to drown your grief in a vat of tequila before the next worse year of your life arrives. “f*ck Todd!” Della yells, signaling the bartender for another round. Della, besides being my best friend and partner in crime, is also one of those magical people who can always get a bartender’s attention. It’s crazy—she barely looks at the guy, and all of a sudden, he’s right there at her elbow, attentively pouring tequila into our glasses while she bats her eyes at him gratefully. I have no clue how she does it but she pulls them in like a goddamn tractor beam. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that she looks like Kate Hudson’s little sister: all golden curls, wide brown eyes, and clear skin that never needs makeup. It’s a good thing she uses her powers for good, not evil. With great sex appeal comes awesome responsibility. “f*ck Todd, and f*ck this year!” She picks up her newly-filled glass and holds it out. “You were too good for him anyway. To your new life!” she yells gleefully before tossing it back.

I try to smile. “You’re not having fun!” Della scolds. “I am!” I protest. I just can’t seem to forget Todd’s face a few days ago as he squirmed guiltily on the couch while telling me he was leaving me for his assistant, Harmony, who he referred to as a “younger, more ambitious version of you.” “Harmony,” I repeat. “Just the tinkly, musical sound of her name is enough to drive me out of my skull. Well, that, and the fact that he couldn’t even look at me when he said it. What a snake. No, not a snake.” I pound the bar. “A rat. A SUPER rat, as Holly Go-Lightly puts it in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” See, Holly has this theory that you can divide most men in the world into two categories: Rats and super rats, and Todd was clearly in the category of super rat. Della nods. “I mean, what kind of guy leaves after you put him through law school selling overpriced stilettos at a Madison Avenue boutique?” “I was on my swollen feet for hours, and the customers treated me like more like a servant than a salesgirl. Like I said, a super rat. Case closed.” I sip my tequila. “Enough about him. How’s business?” I ask, playing with the gold, heart-shaped locket around my neck. “Good,” she answers, pushing her glass to the side. “I finished this awesome pillow this afternoon that says EAT ME.” Della started an Etsy shop about a year ago selling needlepoint designs with lewd phrases, along with knitted dicks in day-glow colors like hot pink and neon green. It’s wildly popular and she can barely keep anything in stock before it flies right back out again. Kind of like my love life. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the bartender staring at Della, practically drooling on top of the bar. “He’s totally into you,” I say, nodding in his direction while picking up my shot glass and draining it so fast I see stars. “He has possibilities,” she shrugs, sucking on a lime wedge. “At least for tonight,” she says as she throws the lime to the side and flashes him a toothy smile like she wants to eat him alive, waiting for him to drift back her way. Which, after about a minute, he does, a shock of dirty blond hair falling over his eyes, biceps flexing as he leans over the bar to whisper in her ear. Just watching them makes me depressed all over again. She turns back to me, a wicked gleam in her eye. “His name’s Zach, and he says he wants to take me out for breakfast when he gets off work tonight. Should I let

him?” “Probably,” I say with a sigh. There goes my wing woman. Oh well, at least one of us will be getting laid tonight. It just won’t be me. Again. “Do you mind if I go over there and talk with him for a few minutes?” She points to the back door of the bar, which is propped open to let in a little cool air. “You know, just to make sure he’s not a serial killer or anything? I’d rather not start next year by waking up in a dumpster in Queens.” “Oh, why not?” I say magnanimously, raising my glass to her, even though I’m dying inside. “I love you to bits,” Della says with a wink, grinning naughtily as she eases herself off of the barstool. “Back in a flash.” Right, I think. I watch her walk away as the bartender throws a towel over one shoulder and follows quickly behind her. If by that you mean I’ll probably see you sometime next Tuesday. She turns around, cupping her hands around her mouth so she can yell over the music. “Stay out of trouble!” I nod, trying to smile through gritted teeth and give her the thumbs up with my free hand. After she disappears into the crowd, I look at my new shot, still waiting for me to drink it, and take a polite sip this time instead of swallowing it down right away. The way this night is going, I’m going to need to pace myself. Suddenly I’m jostled from behind, and I lurch to the side, almost falling off of my chair. “What the f*ck?!” I turn around to see a guy elbowing the crowd out of the way and sliding onto the newly vacated barstool beside me without even apologizing or acknowledging my presence—or the fact that he practically knocked me unconscious. And people say manspreading on the subway is bad. “Excuse me?” I ask again, but he’s too busy looking for a bartender and doesn’t even notice. I jam my elbow into his ribcage as hard as I can. “Oww!” He turns. “Whoops,” I grin. “I didn’t see you there. So busy. New Year’s.” I shrug, and if he knows I did it on purpose, he doesn’t say. His blue eyes go to my drink. “You’re drinking tequila?” he asks. “Alone? Now that’s just sad.” He reaches for my half-empty shot glass and downs it in one.

I splutter. “One, I’m not alone. At least, I wasn’t before my friend decided to go f*ck one of the bartenders. Two, you owe me a drink, and three . . .” I pause, trying to think of a third thing. “You’re very rude,” I manage to add. He smirks. “You should be thanking me. I just saved you from a sh*tty hangover.” I snort. “Believe me, you’re about three shots too late for that.” “Ouch. Well, the least I can do is take the edge off.” He leans against the bar and gestures smoothly for service. Maybe any other night of the year the bartender would have come running, but it’s New Year’s Eve, and this guy is sh*t out of luck. “Don’t hold your breath,” I tell him. “Oh, ye of little faith. Are you sure I can’t buy you a drink?” I’m about to turn back to wallowing in my own despair, then I take another look. He hasn’t shaved in a few days, his dark hair needs a cut, and he’s dressed in the Brooklyn uniform of black skinny jeans and a plaid shirt, but his blue eyes are sparkling, and he’s smiling at me with a wolfish look . . . Hmmm. Hot? Check. co*cky? Double-check. Drinking alone on NYE? Ding, ding, we have a winner. Step right up, ladies and gentlemen. Lizzie Ryan’s rebound fling has arrived! “Alright,” I say, “I guess you can buy me a drink.” I cross one leg over the other in what I hope is an alluring fashion—and almost topple off the barstool in the process. Whoops. Guess I’m a little drunker than I thought. He reaches out one arm to steady me, and his grip is like the rest of him, strong and sure. “Falling for me already?” he cracks as he reaches into the inside pocket of his coat and pulls out a silver flask. I’m surprised to see it isn’t some novelty thing, but the real deal: the silver is worn and antique-looking, a relic from a time where men drank bourbon on the rocks from glass tumblers and women wore red lipstick just to do a little grocery shopping. Turns out my drink-stealer has taste, after all. He twists off the cap and pours some amber liquid into my glass, filling it to the brim. I watch as he raises the flask to his lips and swallows hard, the whiskey going down his throat like water. “Macallan 25,” he says, screwing the top back on and shoving the flask back into

his coat. “Try it. It’ll change your life.” I don’t know much about whiskey, as I’m mostly a tequila or gin girl, but I do know that Macallan 25 is obscenely expensive—Todd’s boss drank it routinely, and Todd had mentioned, back when I was still speaking to him, that is, that this magic elixir retailed for around two thousand dollars a bottle. Make that hot, co*cky, drunk, and rich. “You know, between finishing my drink and barging your way in here, you owe me at least two apologies at this point—and I still don’t even know your name,” I say, picking up the shot of whiskey and peering at it closely. But what if it’s poisoned? What if it’s full of roofies and you wake up on the street or, god forbid, in this guy’s apartment naked and tied to his bed without any idea how you got there? my inner worrywart whines. Actually, that might be an improvement over the current state of things, thank you very much . . . “Call me . . . Jacob,” he says, shrugging his coat off and letting it drop to the floor. “Drink up.” I take a deep breath and pick up the glass. f*ck it. He’s drinking out of the same flask so it’s probably safe, I tell myself. Besides, a life without risk isn’t really worth living, something I seem to have forgotten lately. The liquor slides down my throat, smooth as silk. I never got all that bullsh*t about aftertaste of peat moss and burning wood with just a hint of vanilla, but damn, call me a convert. I take another sip and almost moan out loud. If I could bathe in it I would immediately fill the nearest bathtub with this magical stuff. Rich people get all the best toys. “Elizabeth,” I tell him, putting the glass down on the bar. Lizzie is the girl who got dumped, ditched, and demeaned this year. Maybe I can be Elizabeth instead, just for the night. The flirty one who picks up hot guys in bars and embarks on a night of mind-blowing sex adventures. A girl can dream, right? “So, Elizabeth . . . what are you doing sitting here by yourself?” he asks with a devilish smile. “Boyfriend dump you?” My cheeks go immediately red, words of protest spilling from my lips. “Yes,” I sputter, “but not tonight. He had the courtesy to dump me two whole weeks ago just to make sure I’d be appropriately miserable on the biggest holiday of the year. He’s super considerate like that.”

“Yeah,” he laughs, uncapping the flask and raising it to his lips again, “he sounds like a real charmer.” He holds the flask out to me and I take it. When our fingers brush, I feel a shock of heat that shoots straight between my thighs. Damn, this is good whiskey. “What about you?” I ask, running the pads of my fingers over a series of engraved letters on the side of the flask that I can’t quite make out in the darkness of the bar. “Slumming it?” I ask. “Was the eighteen-year-old model-slash-DJ you’re probably f*cking busy tonight? Or did she dump you too?” “Isabel,” he says, the smile fading from his face as he looks away from me and in profile his face is so classically handsome that it should be minted on a f*cking coin. “And she wasn’t eighteen—she was twenty-two. Otherwise, you’re not far off.” I would laugh, if he didn’t look so downcast. What the hell: solidarity in rejection. “What’d she do to you?” I ask, handing him back the flask. “Well, let’s see,” he says, turning it over in his hands so that the silver flashes in the light. “She left me for some Terry Richardson wannabe photographer she met on a shoot in Paris. Is that cliché enough?” “Pretty much,” I smile. “Look at these poor assholes,” he says bitterly, pointing out a couple canoodling in a corner, wrapped up in each other so tightly that they’re probably sharing DNA as we speak. I watch as the bottle-blond puts her tongue so far down her boyfriend’s throat that she can probably taste what he had for dinner. “They actually think they’re in love.” “Let me guess.” I pat him gently on the shoulder. “You think love is just an illusion invented by Hallmark cards and romance novels. Gee, original.” “And let me guess, you think soulmates are real, and true love is fate, like in all those Meg Ryan movies you love.” “I hate Meg Ryan,” I lie, not wanting him to be right, and hating that he was all at the same time. “I guess we’ll just agree to disagree.” I turn away from his co*cky grin and look over at the strings of colored lights hanging behind the bar, feeling sorry for myself again. “Why do they just get to walk all over us?” I ask. “Todd dumps me after I help him achieve his dreams, all the while ignoring my own, and where am I now?” “Talking to a handsome stranger in a bar?”

“And your Isabel just walks out like it doesn’t even matter,” I continue. Suddenly I’m pissed, the anger bubbling up in my chest. “They don’t see any consequences. Her, and him, and freaking Harmony. They just get to waltz off and be happy without us! I bet they’re all off at some party somewhere. Dancing and drinking and laughing about how much better they are than us. Someone needs to PAY.” Suddenly, through my drunken haze, I know exactly what I have to do. I stumble down off the stool. “Happy New Year,” I tell Jacob, and head determinedly for the door. The room only spins a teeny-tiny bit, and by the time I make it outside, I’m totally stable again. Almost. Kind of. Now where’s a cab when you need one? I start down the block, ready to flag one down, when somebody grabs my arm. Whoever they are, they’re sh*t out of luck, courtesy of the best self-defense classes the local YWCA had to offer. I spin around in a fighting stance, my hands already up to block. “I know kung fu!” I yell. My accoster lurches back. “Whoa there, Bruce Lee.” “Oh.” I relax. “It’s you.” Jacob is standing there with an amused smirk on his face. “What do you want? I’m going somewhere.” “Good luck getting anywhere without this.” He holds up my purse, dangling the strap from one finger. “sh*t.” I stop. “I guess I am drunk.” “Only a little, but hell, it’s New Year’s Eve, right?” “Right.” I nod. “And that’s why I have to end the year right. Balance the scales of justice.” I turn away again and start looking for a cab. I hear Jacob sigh behind me. “Do I really want to know?” “Nope. If the police ask, you never saw a thing.” I spot a flash of yellow and whistle for it. The sound pierces through the street. “Nice pipes.” Jacob looks amused. “Where’d you learn to do that?” I shrug. “It’s like Marilyn said, you just put your lips together and blow, baby.” He arches an eyebrow, and I realize too late how dirty that sounded. “Nice meeting you, Jacob,” I tell him briskly. “Thanks for the drink.” I open the cab door and tumble inside. “Three sixteen Broad Street,” I tell him, naming Todd’s new address. The address he told me to ship all his stuff to, because god forbid he lift a damn finger for himself. But before the cab can drive away,

Jacob gets in too. “Wait, are you following me?” I look at him, puzzled, as the city lights glide by outside the window. “I’m asking myself the same question,” Jacob sighs. “But it sounds to me like you’re about to do something really stupid.” “Hey!” I protest. “Illegal?” he checks. I pause. “Maybe. A teeny-tiny little bit? It depends on your definition of legality.” He nods. “OK, you’re definitely going to need bail money.” “I’ll have you know, I don’t plan on getting caught,” I inform him, annoyed. “My revenge plan is foolproof.” “Oh yeah?” “Yeah,” I insist. “Well, it will be when I think of one. But I have . . . fifteen whole blocks to do it.” “By all means.” He sits back. “Be my guest. I’ll be over here, trying to find that lawyer’s number . . .” I hit him lightly. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.” “Look,” he sighs. “I’m all for your rar-rar-female empowerment hear me roar thing, but revenge? Really? This isn’t the fifth grade.” I glare at him. “Since when did you become such a puss*?” “What?” Jacob gapes at me. “OK, OK, gendered insults are oppressive, or whatever Della keeps telling me,” I correct myself. “When did you get to be such a weak-ass wimp?” “I’m not,” he growls, clearly pissed. “So?” I stare. “Aren’t you mad at whatshername, Isabel, for being a two-timing cheating bitch?” “Yup.” “And don’t you want to do something about it?” Jacob grins. “Haven’t you ever heard the saying ‘living well is the best revenge’?” I snort. “Sorry, but you’re drinking alone on New Year’s, it doesn’t seem like you’re living too great to me.”

Jacob flinches. “Low blow.” “Sorry.” I give him a smile. “I’m in the same boat too, remember? Except I’m not taking it lying down.” “No?” He gives me another wolfish look. “Which way do you like to take it?” Hello. Another flush of heat spirals through me, but I refuse to let him distract me from my noble quest for vengeance. “I just can’t let him do it, OK?” I say, my voice cracking under the pressure of weeks of crying myself to sleep at night. “I can’t let him just throw us away, and waltz on with his life like I never even mattered to him, and WIN. I want him to hurt, like I do. I want him to suffer something for the way he treated me. Can’t you understand that under all your layers of cool ironic detachment?” “I do understand,” Jacob says quietly. He looks at me and then sighs again. “Fine, I’ll help, but only if we do this my way. No offense, but you’re way too drunk to be planning on breaking any laws tonight.” “I’m not drunk!” I protest. “Really? How many fingers am I holding up?” Jacob tests me. I roll my eyes. “Why, how many fingers am I holding up?” I flip him the bird. Jacob snorts. “Real mature.” “Thank you.” I beam. I glance out the window. “Ooh, stop, we’re here!”

4 STILL NEW YEAR’S EVE

I TUMBLE out of the cab onto the sidewalk, almost hitting the deck until Jacob’s strong arms catch me at the last minute. “You want to tell me again how not-drunk you are?” he murmurs. I ignore how good his body feels against me and fix him with a glare. “You try walking straight in three-inch heels.” He grins. “Maybe on the weekend.” I laugh. I can’t help it. For all his annoying quips and judgmental stares, he’s funny. co*cky and hot and drunk and funny. Part of me wonders if I should just skip this whole revenge scenario, take Jacob back to my place, and ring in the new year with a much-needed org*sm. Then I remember how humiliating it felt to have Todd walk out and leave me in the dust. My resolve hardens. Vengeance first, org*sms later. “OK,” I say aloud, looking up at the building. “f*ck, this is a nice place.” “Doorman,” Jacob agrees. “Classic pre-war. Is your ex loaded or something?” “Now he is,” I reply bitterly. “I got to help pay his way through law school working double shifts and living off ramen, but now it’s doormen and sushi all the way.” “Sushi sucks,” Jacob says. “I mean, I know I’m supposed to like it, and I’ve tried, but you’re basically eating Nemo.” I giggle. “Come on.” I start for the entrance, but he pulls me back. “Wait, what if he’s home?” I shake my head. “He’s off at some big party thrown by his firm. Open bar on a yacht on the Hudson. I thought we were going together. Why do you think I bought these shoes?” “If it’s any consolation, they’re hot shoes.” Jacob glances down. “Very kinky.”

It is a consolation. I put a little extra swing in my hips as I open the door and stride across the marble lobby. I’m channeling every badass femme fatale I’ve ever seen. I’m Marilyn in The Seven Year Itch. Rita Hayworth in Gilda, I’m— “Excuse me.” The doorman’s voice stops me in my tracks. “Which floor do you need?” I turn, my mind racing. sh*t, what do I say now? But before I can blurt out a crappy excuse, Jacob speaks up smoothly. “Oh, hey brah. We’re with Todd? In three sixteen? Or is it seventeen? I don’t know man, I was wasted the last time we were by, you know how it is, right, brah?” I blink. Is it just me, or is Jacob doing a stoned Keanu impersonation right now? “Anyway, we’re crashing for the night. Todd said it was A-OK, and—oh, wait, he forgot to leave the keys, didn’t he?” The doorman checks a file. “I don’t see anything here.” “sh*t man, is there any way you can let us up?” Jacob strolls over. “My lady’s ready to hit the hay, if you know what I mean.” “I should really call Mr. Portman . . .” “He’s out of range, I tried.” Jacob peels a twenty from his billfold and slides it over. “Hook a brother up?” The guy pauses, then shrugs. “f*ck it, I’m just a temp.” He plucks some keys from a drawer and tosses them to Jacob. “I’ll need these back before morning or my boss will kill me,” he warns. “Got it, brah.” Jacob walks back, and hustles me into the elevator. “Peace out!” he calls, as the doors close. “Holy sh*t!” I cry. “That was amazing.” “Thank you, thank you very much.” Jacob grins. “I didn’t even realize you spoke bro.” “It’s universal, man.” The doors open, and we get off. I check the numbers, then find Todd’s apartment. Jacob opens the door, and we step inside. “What. The. f*ck.” I gasp. This is insane. The apartment is like five times the size of the shoebox we shared back in Williamsburg. Jacob lets out a whistle, looking around. “Your guy has style, I’ll give him that.”

“I don’t understand.” I look around. “This isn’t Todd at all.” The décor is ubermodern, with lots of really uncomfortable looking furniture that would probably look more at home in a mental hospital—or torture chamber. But the solid wall of windows in the living room more than make up for it, framing all of the twinkling lights of the city. Suddenly, a tiny, shaggy grey-and-white Shih Tzu comes flying towards us on toothpick legs like one of the hounds of hell, sinking its razor sharp teeth into my ankle boot. “What the f*ck!” I yell out, shaking off the dog. “Whoa, you didn’t say anything about a dog!” Jacob edges closer. “I didn’t know he got one!” I lean down to inspect my ankle, making sure the skin is intact. The dog backs up, growling, its ears pinned to its tiny, demonic head. “What are we supposed to do now?” “Easy there,” Jacob says, walking over and holding out his hand, holding it out for Cujo to sniff. “Down, boy.” All of a sudden, it’s like the dog has multiple personality disorder—his eyes brighten and he begins humping Jacob’s leg furiously, his eyes rolling back in ecstasy in his little doggy skull. Is it possible to be jealous of a tiny, psychotic dog? At least someone’s getting lucky tonight. He finally shakes the beast loose and he looks up at us, blinking with fierce doggy eyes, before running back into the depths of the apartment, his nails clattering on what looks like miles of honey-colored hardwood floors. I let out a sigh of relief. “When the hell did he get a dog?” “Um, something tells me it’s not his dog,” Jacob says, holding a photo from the cabinet. “And also, not his apartment.” “What?” I snatch the photo from his hand. It’s a framed print of a gorgeous blond girl, smiling and cuddling the dog against a mountain backdrop. I recognize her from one of the company co*cktail parties, back when Todd actually took me to them instead of blowing me off, saying I’d be bored, and it was all work. Harmony. He moved in with f*cking Harmony. I look around again, and suddenly, it all makes sense. The perfect décor. The elegant lights and fresh flowers on the table, and the fact he didn’t want me dropping by to deliver his stuff in person.

“He moved in with her.” Suddenly, my fight leaves me. I slump onto the nearest chair, not caring that it’s harder than steel. “I can’t believe it,” I say softly, looking around. “He didn’t even tell me. He just went straight from my bed to hers. And I thought we were in love.” “Asshole,” Jacob says comfortingly. “I told you, it’s an illusion: romance, love—all of it. No one’s ever who you think they are. Especially women.” “Ha!” I give a weak laugh. “Listen buddy, it’s not like women have some kind of exclusive market on being emotionally unavailable—men do just fine on that front too, believe me.” And looking around, I’ve got the evidence. “And you know this from, what? One bad breakup and you’re the f*cking Buddha? You’ve got all the answers?” He raises an eyebrow, and I either want to kiss or slap him, I don’t know which. “No.” I try to hold back the tears. “Obviously I don’t. I mean, look at this. It’s perfect. She’s perfect. Who could blame him for upgrading?” “Hey,” he scolds me. “Didn’t you tell me not to be a f*cking puss*?” I look up. “Don’t.” I shake my head. “That’s different.” “To hell it’s different. You came here for revenge, so let’s f*cking give it to him.” “How?” I ask. “I don’t even know what to do right now.” “Then it’s a good thing I’ve spent the last six months addicted to Reddit,” Jacob grins. I frown. “Isn’t that full of internet fanboys and weird p*rn links?” “Yeah, but also a message board where everyone shares their petty revenge schemes.” He smiles at me. “I’ve seen everything.” “Like what?” “Like . . . putting dog sh*t in all the air vents,” Jacob says, thinking hard. “Leaving the faucets running, since they’ll be out all night. Cutting a hole in the crotch of all his pants. Dialing an adult sex line and leaving the phone off the hook.” He’s right. They are petty plans—and right now, they’re pretty damn tempting. Still, the sane, rational, sober brain cell left in my head hesitates. “Wouldn’t that just make me the crazy ex-girlfriend Todd gets to complain about to all his friends?” “So what?” Jacob pulls me to my feet. “f*ck Todd.” That sounds good.

“f*ck Todd,” I repeat. “Atta girl.” I look around, my anger returning. “f*ck Todd and his perfect new girlfriend and the fact they were clearly screwing behind my back for god knows how long. ‘We’ve just drifted apart. We want different things now. I swear there’s nobody else,’ ” I mimic. “f*ck that bullsh*t!” I remember Todd’s sincere apologies and cringe. I believed him, too. How much of a doormat was I? “Where do we start?” Jacob asks. I narrow my eyes. “The closets. He has a thing for designer suits.” “Lead on!” I head down a long hallway that must lead to the bedroom. “Bingo.” The only light in the room is coming from a crystal chandelier in the enormous walk in closet, where countless rows of shoes and designer handbags are lined up on shelves. “Oh my god,” I moan, pulling out a sequined dress that looks more appropriately sized for a third grader than any kind of grown-ass woman. “Look at this. How does she eat?” I pull a pair of jeans off a hanger and peer at the tag inside. “Size 0? How is that even possible? These would barely fit over one of my thighs, much less both.” Jacob starts rifling through the drawers. He moves aside what looks like a pile of expensive lingerie, then pulls out a handful of what look like prescription pill bottles, holding them up triumphantly. “Exhibit A: Adderall. It’s easy to fit a size zero when you never eat.” He tosses the pills over. I catch them, he’s right. “How did you know?” “Isabel’s the same.” I snort. “I bet she is. Tell the truth, you’ve never dated a woman over a hundred pounds, have you?” Jacob coughs, looking uncomfortable. “I like athletic women.” I hoot with laughter. “Athletic is just shorthand for ‘skinny but does yoga once a week.’ Try again, mister.” Jacob puts his hands up. “OK, OK, but I’m telling you, it gets pretty old after a while. I mean, sometimes you just want to go out and get a greasy burger from Shake Shack, right?”

I nod wordlessly. I love Shake Shack so much that they should probably erect a plaque there in my honor. Frozen custard is my life. “It kind of takes all the fun out of it when your date’s glaring at you over her hot water and lemon, you know?” “No, but I can certainly imagine.” I folded the jeans in half, putting them back on the hanger. “Though you certainly wouldn’t have that problem with me—Todd always said I should lose ten pounds, but I love food too much,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “Well, we already know Todd’s a f*cking moron.” He smiles, and it’s so charming, I wonder how Isabel could have walked away. “How long did you date her?” I wonder aloud, watching him stride around like he owns the place, flipping on all of the lamps, bathing the room in light. “Long enough to know better.” He heads into the en-suite master bath, and I follow, almost groaning aloud when I see the size of the soaking tub. Hell, I’d f*ck Harmony for a tub like that. “What does that mean?” I try to focus. He pauses before answering. “It means that my head was telling me one thing and my dick another. Story of my life,” he says with a low chuckle. “It means that if I know what’s good for me, I should trust my head and ignore the f*ck out of my heart.” “Yeah,” I drawl, “that sounds like a great idea. Super practical.” “You live, you learn.” He shrugs. “I’m guessing you won’t be leaping head over heels for the next guy who comes along, either.” I pause. “I don’t know. I may be angry and bitter and heartbroken, but I still believe. In love. Eventually.” “Good luck with that.” Jacob sounds skeptical, and I don’t want to get sucked into misery again, so I look around with new ambition. “OK, we’re here. What first?” Jacob hands me a pair of nail scissors from the armoire. “Go crazy.” I take them and step into the closet, finding the rows of precious designer suits. Todd would fuss over them forever, insisting on having me schlep to the fancy dry cleaners ten blocks away instead of handing them off to Mrs. Lin across the street like normal. Now, I trail my fingers over the wool and imagine his face when he finds them shredded to bits.

Except . . . Maybe all-out destruction isn’t the way to go here. Think sneaky, I tell myself, and get to work. FIVE MINUTES LATER, I emerge to find Jacob on a stool in the living room, doing something to the curtains. “Mission accomplished?” he asks. The dog is panting at his feet like he worships the dude. I know how he feels. “Yup.” I beam. “I unpicked the seam in the ass of every pair of pants he owns. He won’t even notice until he’s at the office, and even then, he’ll just think he put on weight and split them himself.” Jacob laughs. “Nice move.” He hops down and repositions the stool. “While you were busy, I decided to leave some gifts in the curtain rods.” “What kind of gifts?” “Frozen shrimp.” Jacob gives me a wicked grin, and maybe it’s the whiskey or the sweet, sweet scent of revenge, but he looks sexy as hell. “I found it in the freezer. I read about one girl who did it to her ex. It all started rotting but they couldn’t find the smell anywhere. In the end, they moved out—and took the curtain rods to the new place, too.” I laugh and hold my hand up for a high five. “Any other genius ideas?” “Well, there’s always the old ‘hair remover in the shampoo’ trick,” Jacob suggests. I guess he’s nothing if not resourceful. “My sister pulled it on her bitch of a roommate in college, says she nearly had a nervous breakdown.” “You have a sister?” I realize I know absolutely nothing about this guy—except, of course, his taste in whiskey and petty revenge. “Step,” he shrugs. “From my dad’s second marriage. She’s out in California, making YouTube kids into millionaires. And if there’s one thing she knows, it’s how to win. What do you say?” I shake my head. “Petty, yes. Cruel, nope.” He looks surprised. I sigh. “I know Harmony’s a bitch who screwed my boyfriend, but I like to think Karma will deal with her in the end.” “Your call,” Jacob says. “But we should probably get going before the bro downstairs realizes what a mistake he made.” “Let’s do it.” I take a last look around at the life Todd chose over me. Over us. Cold

and clinical and so perfect you could never relax. “He’s welcome to it.” Jacob heads for the door, but I can’t resist one final “f*ck you.” I turn on the faucet in the kitchen and let it run quietly as we let ourselves out. If they don’t make it back until dawn, they’re going to find a whole lot of water damage in the carpets. “Enjoy spending your bonus on that, asshole.” I shut the door behind me with a smile and head to the elevator. We’re heading back down when the exhilaration hits me. “Oh my god, what did we just do? I’m a criminal!” “Minor vandalism,” Jacob reassures me. “No, I mean, this is awesome!” I smile at him, my pulse racing. “I’ve never done anything like this. I can’t believe it!” Before I can think twice, I throw my arms around his neck and kiss him on the cheek. “Thank you!” I exclaim. “That was the most fun I’ve had in years.” He laughs and sets me back on the ground. “Then your ex is even more useless than I thought,” he says with a smoldering look. Our eyes catch, and bam, that heat surges through me again. Hello, lover. I flush. What did I say before? Vengeance first, org*sms later. Well, now we’re right on schedule . . . DING! The doors open, and I stop, startled. Jacob peers out. “All clear, come on,” he says, grabbing my hand. We race across the lobby, and thankfully, the doorman is nowhere to be seen. Freedom! I stumble through the revolving doors and out into the freezing air. He magically hails another cab, and we fall in. “Where to?” the cabbie asks. Jacob meets my gaze. He lifts an eyebrow. “Seems a shame to cut the night short,” he says casually. “I live nearby, if you want another drink.” A drink. A kiss. A night of earth-shattering pleasure. Sure, sign me up. “OK,” I shrug, acting just as nonchalant. “Why not?” He leans forward and says something to the driver, and then we’re moving off. My heart is still racing, and I can’t stop imagining Todd’s face when he finds all the little gifts we left. “Thank you,” I tell Jacob, feeling a wash of gratitude. “What for?”

“That, back there. I never would have done any of it without you.” He laughs. “Don’t tell that to the cops.” My jaw drops open. “Whoa,” Jacob says quickly. “I’m kidding. They won’t call the cops. At least, I don’t think so.” “OK.” I take a deep breath. Sure, I’m not exactly living my dream life working retail and struggling to pay the bills, but a conviction would pretty much screw my chances of ever making my dreams come true. “We’re just going to pretend everything’ll work out fine. I really don’t look good in orange.” He laughs. “I don’t know about that. You would look good in anything.” I gulp, feeling a tingle all the way through me. “You’re pretty smooth, aren’t you?” He grins. “And you’re pretty drunk.” I shake my head. “Not anymore. I guess breaking and entering sobers you up pretty well.” “Good to know.” Jacob gives me another wolfish look, and I squirm. When did he get so sexy? I wonder. I’m pretty sure back at the bar he was a seven, but now . . . ? Now I want to strip him naked right in the middle of Times Square. Luckily, I don’t have to. The cab pulls up, and Jacob pays him while I get out and look around. “Umm, Jacob?” I ask. We’re on a dark street with weird industriallooking buildings. I thought Della was the one who might wake up in a dumpster, but now I’m reassessing my odds. “Trust me,” Jacob says, taking my hand. And even though I don’t really have a reason, somehow, I do. I follow him to one of the doorways and wait while he taps in a security code. He holds the door for me. “Home sweet home.” “You live here?” I ask dubiously. “Give it a chance.” Jacob pulls up a metal grille and climbs a dark flight of stairs. I would turn around and run for the cab, except these shoes are freaking killing me, and I still feel the imprint of his touch burning through my skin. The current between us is almost electric and have the feeling that if I happen to fall into this guy’s bed I’m going to have a really hard time getting back out. So maybe he lives in a concrete studio with a bare mattress in the corner of the room and stolen paper towels for TP. I can deal with that. “You better be worth it,” I mutter, following him blindly up the stairs. “What was that?” he asks, flipping on a light. I stop. “Nothing . . .” I say.

I take it all back. We’re standing in a massive loft space with exposed brick and pipework running down the walls. It’s cool and industrial and definitely better than a dorm room. “Wait, what was all that talk about Todd being loaded? Because I’m sorry, but you’re hardly one to talk.” “There’s a big difference between fifteen hundred square feet in Brooklyn Yard and over here,” he grins. “I’m praying they move a Starbucks in soon, and I didn’t just sink my life savings into a total loss.” “You own this place?” My voice goes up an octave. “I’m crashing on my friend Della’s couch with my worldly possessions in a suitcase! What do you do?” I demand. “Are you like one of those awful hipster-prenuers they write about in the newspaper, the ones who start a local small-batch brewing company and become instant millionaires?” “Hipster? You wound me.” He clutches his chest, and I smirk. “Uh, take a look in the mirror.” He sighs. “I need a new wardrobe. And no, I’m not. My grandmother helped me out with the deposit on this place, she left me some money when she passed. And right now, I don’t even know what I’m doing. I’m working for this buddy of mine, running a concierge service, but I don’t know . . . I think he’s about to fold.” “Concierge?” I move closer as Jacob goes to pour us some drinks. “You mean like getting concert tickets for tourists?” “Pretty much. At least, that’s how it started. But I love it when we get weird requests, like last week, some guy wanted us to find a first-edition vinyl pressing of Fleetwood Mac for an anniversary gift. Do you know how hard those things are to find?” I shake my head. Jacob is looking weirdly animated as he passes me my drink. “I wound up tracking down the liner notes and calling everyone who worked on the record. In the end, I found the guy who ran the recording studio, back in ’78, and got him to check his attic. He had a whole box, mint condition, he’d forgotten he even had.” Jacob looks so proud, it’s like he brought in a fresh carcass for the pride. Then he deflates. “But my partner doesn’t know how to run a business. We’ve got about six months before the investors pull their funding.” “So go solo,” I shrug. “People always want what they can’t have, right? You could be the guy who gets it for them.” “Maybe. I don’t know.” He swishes whiskey in his glass. “What about you?” “What about me?” I groan. “I want to be a curator, but there are five thousand of us chasing the same six jobs. So you’re looking at the deputy assistant manager, shoe

department.” I do a little curtsy, and he grins. “Does that mean you can hook me up with a pair of those heels?” I laugh, and kick them off one by one. “Knock yourself out,” I say, and then sigh happily. “Oh my god, that’s better.” I don’t want to dwell on my professional failures, so I take a sip of whiskey and wander around, barefoot, looking at his stuff. “You’re a movie guy?” I ask, surprised. There are framed prints of The Maltese Falcon and In a Lonely Place, Cool Hand Luke, and more. Was it possible that this guy has an actual soul underneath all that co*cky jadedness? He certainly has good taste, that’s for sure. Not that I’d ever tell him as much. “Those guys knew a thing or two about being men,” Jacob replies. “They didn’t take anyone’s sh*t.” “Oh, right, you mean in the good ol’ days, where men were men, and women knew their place. Real original.” “Says the girl who probably has a picture of Audrey Hepburn on her wall.” Jacob shoots back, and I stop. Busted. Well, it was college! “Yeah, that’s all well and good,” I say, waving my hand dismissively, “but what about romance? I mean, isn’t that what most of these films are? Romances?” “Nope,” he says, refilling his glass. “It’s an illusion. A way to get women into bed. Nothing more.” “Oh, so love’s an illusion, romance is an illusion . . .” I nod, remembering how cynical he was back at the bar. I’d almost forgotten, what with the petty revenge and smoldering good looks, but clearly, this bitterness ran deep. “I’m sensing a pattern here. You’re beginning to sound like a broken record, you know.” “Speaking of . . .” Jacob strolls over to a record player and picks out an old vinyl record. Frank Sinatra. Curiouser and curiouser. “So . . . the music, the posters . . . are they like props?” I ask, trying to figure him out. “You lure women into your web with the promise of old-fashioned romance and then boot them out into the cold light of day empty-handed?” “Well, not empty-handed exactly,” he grins, shooting me a devilish look and running one hand over the rough stubble on his face. Immediately, I blush, picturing how that sandpapery skin might feel against my thighs . . . Jacob strolls closer, and my heart stops. Because I’m actually doing this. The nostrings NYE rebound I’ve been talking about. My mind goes blank, and I try to think of something witty and charming to say, but before I can do anything, he’s kissing

me. His mouth is hot on mine, tasting of the sting of whiskey, and he kisses me hard and deep until I want to devour him. Hot, co*cky, drunk, and an excellent kisser . . . Mmmm . . . I sink my teeth into his lower lip, biting softly until he groans, and I feel it all the way between my thighs. We stumble back onto the couch, making out like a couple of teenagers, and then he’s pulling my skirt off with practiced hands, laying me out right there on the leather. Part of my brain is screaming WTF, this is going from zero to sixty in ten seconds flat, but then he nudges my thighs apart and strokes against my cl*t and I don’t give a sh*t. This feels too good to hit the brakes. I moan, pressing against his hand as he pushes my panties aside. He kisses my neck and bites down gently on my neck and damn, it’s been too long. Too long since I felt this hot, like every nerve in my body is wound tight and screaming for release. Jacob grinds against me, and god, I want him right now. Because Todd may have been many things, but sexy . . . ? Well, let’s just say he left a thing or two to be desired. And by thing, I mean, my cl*t and how to find it. “Uh, hello?” I snap back and find Jacob looking at me. “Sorry. I was just thinking about Todd.” Jacob gives me a look. “Not exactly the words a man wants to hear right about now.” He strokes my cl*t again, sure circles, then delves deeper to dip his fingers in my already-soaking puss*. I moan. “Better.” He gives me a knowing look. “Let me guess, Asshole Todd didn’t know how to find your G-spot.” He looks so smug right now, I almost lie. Then he pulses his finger up inside me, and f*ck, that’s better than sodium thiopental for truth serum because I’ll say just about anything to make him do it again. “The G-spot is a myth,” I gasp, clinging to my self-control. Sure, he’s driving me crazy right now, but that doesn’t mean he gets to be so smug about it. “It’s an illusion, like romance, right?” “Wrong.” Jacob pulses inside me again, leaning in to nip my earlobe. “Count yourself lucky I’m here to enlighten you.” “God, you’re insufferable,” I manage, just as he yanks my top up and closes his mouth around one of my breasts. He flicks my nipple with his tongue and I clench

around his fingers. “Totally . . . utterly . . . annoying . . . ” “Hush, woman.” Jacob rolls his eyes. “I’m working here.” I open my mouth to protest, but then he slides another finger in, stretching me wider, and my complaint turns to a whimper. “Better,” he says. “Now, keep quiet, and let me prove you wrong.” Ordinarily, that kind of arrogant instruction would send me running for the door, but it’s kind of hard to run with your legs spread wide and a hot guy kissing his way down your body, and with every inch of skin so sensitive that just a touch sets my whole body on fire. f*ck you, I tell him silently, as Jacob pulls my panties off. f*ck you and your cynical bullsh*t, and your superiority complex, and the fact you called me “woman,” and— Holy sh*t! He licks up against my cl*t and I suddenly couldn’t care less about his attitude because OH. MY. GOD. What he’s doing with his tongue is probably illegal in five states, and I never want it to stop. He licks faster, and slides his fingers back into my puss*, moving them back and forth in a way that I never knew I wanted, a way that feels completely necessary for my very f*cking survival. I’m panting now, my breath coming hard, and I grab his head and push it harder against me. He laughs against me, a rumble against my cl*t, and I don’t even care that he’s winning the argument because his fingers curl higher and his tongue swirls lightly over me and I’m quivering from the inside out as I climb higher and higher and then, holy f*ck, I’m there, I’m almost there, and it’s too f*cking good, and this guy was right, Todd had no idea, no ideas at all, and he’s . . . he’s . . . Stopped? “Don’t stop,” I gasp, trying to hold onto the high. “More. f*ck, I’ll beg if you want me to.” There’s no reply. In fact, there’s no movement of any kind at all. I look down. He’s splayed across my legs, face down in my crotch. I lift his head to check. His eyes are closed, his breathing deep and regular. Is he . . . asleep? Jacob lets out a muffled snore. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I sit up so that his cheek now drops gently down to rest on the couch instead of my

bare thigh. How can this even be possible? What kind of guy passes out with his face buried in your puss*, no matter how drunk he is? This guy, apparently. My cheeks burning with embarrassment and disbelief, I swing my legs around, watching for any signs of life. I hold a hand in front of his nose to make sure he’s still breathing, which thank god he is, because the only thing worse than having a guy fall asleep in my crotch would be having him die there. I untangle myself, stepping over his prostrate body, grab my panties and skirt from the floor where he dropped them, and quickly pull them over my hips, sure the rustling noise will wake him, but it doesn’t. He’s out cold. So cold apparently even my half-naked body couldn’t keep his attention. Way to go, Lizzie. Sex with you is so boring, they pass out. I grab my coat and walk over to the door, flipping the lock open, which seems horrifically loud in the stillness of the room. Not that it seems to bother him any. I look back at him, splayed out on the couch motionless, and muffle a sigh. Why does this kind of stuff only happen to me? I shut the door behind me and lean against it for a moment dejectedly. Okay, fine, maybe it didn’t only happen to me, but I also know for a fact that it would never happen to Ingrid Bergman, that’s for sure. Not in a million years. Well, screw him. Screw him, and Todd, and every other person standing between me, my dreams, and the org*sms I deserve. This year is toast, and the next one is going to be better. I swear it: old pushover Lizzie is done. Watch out world, I’m coming. Or at least, I will be, once I’m back with my trusty vibrator and a locked door. It’s time to move the f*ck on, starting now. Todd is in the past, and this guy too. Because hey, at least I never have to see him again in my life. Right?

5 JAKE

I SHAKE LIZZIE’S HAND, but for some reason, she doesn’t drop it. She’s staring at me like I’ve just run over her kitten without so much as an apology. “Nice to meet you,” I say, trying to take my hand back. “This is a nice, uh, office you have down here.” “Are you serious?” she asks, shooting daggers from her blue eyes. I blink. Okaaay, not the usual reaction I get from women, but then again, I was just lying through my teeth. It’s not so much an office as a weird den crammed floorto-ceiling with movie memorabilia and art, buried in the depths of the museum so deep I took two wrong turns just getting here. “It’s interesting,” I correct myself. “Eclectic.” I drift over to a cabinet and pick up a weird statue. “This is a nice . . . ?” “Reproduction Greek fertility goddess.” I drop it so fast she snorts. “Don’t worry,” she says, “it’s not infectious.” “You can never be too careful.” I flash her a smile, the kind that usually melts and drops panties in equal measure, but she’s still watching me with undiluted loathing. It’s a shame, because she’s got that whole hot librarian thing going on behind her red cat-eye glasses and those dark bangs. She’s wearing a pencil skirt that nips in at her waist, the fussy blouse hiding what look like ample curves below. Most of all, I’m staring at her lips, which are slightly parted and blood red, waiting for me to say something . . . “Well, I just wanted to drop by and say hi in person,” I say, backing towards the door. She seemed nice enough over email, but maybe this is why they stashed her in the basem*nt, so she doesn’t scare people away. “Nice to meet you, Lizzie.” “Nice to meet you too, Jacob,” she says, a little sarcastically, and I get the weirdest sense of déjà vu. I know her from somewhere, but where . . . ? I look at her again. A bar, maybe? The coffee shop . . . ?

Then Lizzie reaches to tuck her hair behind her ears, and suddenly, it all comes rushing back to me. She’s the girl from New Year’s Eve. The one who went on a petty revenge spree, with me along for the ride. Her hair is different—it was longer then—and she wasn’t wearing those glasses either, but it’s definitely her. sh*t. “Lizzie. Elizabeth. Now I remember.” I try another charming smile. “How have you been? You look great, by the way. The hair really suits you.” She arches an eyebrow at me. “That’s all you have to say for yourself? I can’t believe you didn’t recognize me!” “I do!” “After like ten minutes!” she exclaims. “Jesus, how many women have you been with if we’re all just a blur to you?” I’m ready to argue, but even I can admit she’s got a point. After Isabel . . . well, let’s just say I spent some time working out my issues. In every possible position. “I’m sorry,” I admit. “That night wasn’t exactly my finest moment, not by a long shot.” “You’re telling me,” she smirks, and something about her expression makes me stop. “Wait, do you remember what happened?” I ask. “The last thing I remember is bringing you up to my apartment and having some stupid argument about movies. And drinking whiskey. Lots of whiskey.” “Uh huh.” She taps at her computer, a smile playing on the edge of her lips. Damn, she’s going to make me work for it. “Then . . . it’s all a blur.” I think hard, but for some reason, I can’t picture it. “But based on your frosty reaction right now, I’m guessing we hooked up?” “Warm.” She still doesn’t look up. “Made out?” I try again, frowning. No way would she be this mad if we just kissed a little. “Warmer.” Now I remember: she drove me crazy with that smart mouth of hers. “You’re going to have to help me out here.” I try not to snap. “Look, clearly I offended you by not remembering, but I’m sure we can be mature adults here and not play games.” “You can be as mature as you want.” Lizzie shoots me a sunny smile. “I kind of like games. And I’ll be right here waiting for my apology when you finally remember

what went down.” She smirks again, and I feel a surge of frustration. Dammit, I’m the one who usually has the upper hand with women, and it’s already getting under my skin that this girl knows something I don’t. “Fine,” I drawl, acting like I don’t give a f*ck. Her phone chirps with a text, and she grabs it. A smile spreads across her face. “Good news?” I ask. She looks up, blank-faced, as if she’s forgotten I’m still here. “Just some guy I had a date with the other night.” She shrugs as though it means nothing, but I can tell she’s excited, the color high in her cheeks. “Says he wants to treat me to a night of romance.” “Romance,” I sigh. “We’re back to that again?” “Oh, that’s right,” she says, snapping her fingers triumphantly. “I almost forgot. You’re the cynic. Romance is an illusion, blah blah blah?” “Basically, yes.” I glare, remembering our fight. “Don’t tell me that you still believe in that stuff. After all that sh*t your ex pulled with you? “Oh no,” she says with a tone tinged with disbelief, pointing at the cluttered walls. “People just keep leaving this stuff in my office for some reason! Who knows why?” Her face looks so innocent and guileless that I have to laugh out loud. “So whatever happened with Douchebro Todd, anyway?” I ask, trying to disguise my laugh with a cough and changing the subject, since for some reason I can’t stand letting her have the upper hand. “Did he show back up and apologize? Bring flowers? Get down on one knee like this poor sap over here?” I nod to the painting behind her on the wall. Okay, so I know I’m being a dick, but I can’t help myself. Maybe it’s her eyes flashing at me behind her glasses, or the fact that I can practically see sparks fly when she crosses and uncrosses her legs. “Nope,” she snaps, taking off her glasses and rubbing them on her sweater. “From what I hear he’s still very happy with Harmony. I’ve moved on. I met this guy on Tinder, and I think it could really be something.” Tinder, huh? I’m picturing some Grade A meathead with zero manners and marginal social skills, whose idea of a romantic evening is probably watching the game on TV while intermittently ogling her tit*. Hope she knows what she’s in for. I give her a skeptical look, which she predictably ignores. “Not every guy is a jaded oaf like you, you know,” she says.

“Oh yeah,” I chuckle knowingly. “I’m sure this guy will pull out all the stops tonight: a dozen roses, Dom Perignon—the works. And even if by some miracle he does come through, it won’t mean anything except for the fact that he wants to get you into bed.” “Well, as long as it doesn’t turn out like our night together.” She smirks, and damn, now I really want to remember whatever the f*ck happened. “Odds are, you came your brains out and left begging me for another shot,” I say casually. “That’s what usually goes down on a night with me.” She snorts with laughter. “Not even close, sunshine.” She grins over her glasses, the frames matching her red lips, and I have the worst urge to walk over there and pull them off and start kissing her, working my way down her neck until she lets out one of those throaty little moans that somehow, I remember just fine . . . “Well, this has been fun.” She slams her laptop shut. “But I’ve got a lot of work to do with the show coming up, so why don’t you let me get to it and we’ll talk more tomorrow about strategy? There are a few key pieces I’ll need you to track down for me,” she says, waving her hand and dismissing me like I’m her f*cking lackey. Which in a way, I kind of am, as much as it might annoy me. “That’s it?” I ask, thrown. “Is there something else you need?” she asks sweetly, batting her eyelashes at me in a way that lets me know that she wants me gone—immediately, if not sooner. Fine. If that’s what she wants I’m happy to oblige. “Guess not. I’m sure it’ll be a pleasure working with you,” I say, sarcastic. She smiles. “You too!” I close her office door, pissed off, and fume all the way down the hall. OK, so maybe she has a point being mad that I didn’t recognize her, but what’s with the power play not telling me what happened with us that night? f*ck, I can’t remember, no matter how hard I try. I remember how hot she was knocking back whiskey in the bar . . . and gleefully destroying her ex’s apartment . . . and even in the cab to my place, with her skirt hitching up those incredible legs and her smart mouth just begging for a kiss. f*ck, what did I do? It must be something bad to make her toy with me like this, and dammit if I’m going to give her the satisfaction of knowing she’s under my skin. I don’t need this sh*t. I’m here to do a job, and I don’t need to take her crap. There are plenty of girls in this city who would be more than happy to relive their nights with me—and come begging for a repeat performance, too. Roses and champagne?

Moonlit walks on the f*cking beach? They’re for amateurs. A real man doesn’t need all that window dressing to get a woman into bed. And at the end of the day, that’s what we’re all here for: no romance, no attachments. No letting a woman break your heart into a thousand f*cking pieces. I’m waiting for the elevator when the doors open, and out walks this girl wearing a blue sundress that doesn’t leave much to the imagination—I mean, it’s molded to her curvy body so tightly that I can practically guess her cup size. She’s holding an ice cream in one hand, and she swishes her long blond hair out of one eye, giving me a huge smile and narrowing her green eyes like she wants to devour me—along with her treat. “You’re Jake Weston,” she breathes. “Aren’t you?” “In the flesh.” I flash a smile, and this time it works, because she blushes from her head right down her chest. “I’m so honored to be working with you, Mr. Weston. I’m Skye, Lizzie’s assistant.” She reaches out a hand, and I use my free one and take it. She hangs on just a minute too long before releasing, her finger rubbing against my palm. “If there’s anything you need . . .” She leans a little closer, her ample chest rising and falling with her breath. “And I mean anything at all, do let me know.” She gives me a little wink, but I drop her hand fast. Lizzie’s assistant? Oh hell nope. I know better than to sh*t where I eat—especially with Lizzie on the warpath. “Great meeting you,” I say smoothly, stepping past into the elevator. “See you around!” “You too.” She takes a lick of ice cream, swirling her tongue around suggestively as the doors shut. And I don’t know why, but it triggers something in the darkest corner of my mind. A memory. My tongue. Licking something sweet. Or someone . . . Oh sh*t.

6 LIZZIE

COLIN TEXTS ME HIS ADDRESS, and I head over after work—after a quick change in the ladies’ restroom that would put Supergirl to shame. I’m all dolled up, and I look pretty damn good, if I do say so myself. In the elevator, I smooth down the skirt of my short red dress, making sure I didn’t get wrinkled on the subway ride over, and try to forget Jake Weston’s infuriating co*cky grin. Forget this, I want to yell, but I keep it together. So he doesn’t even remember that night and all its humiliations? At least I’m making him pay now, holding it over his head. But somehow, his voice whispers in my thoughts, and that knowing sneer when I mentioned my big romantic date with Colin tonight. It’s not like he knows everything, I tell myself, walking down the hall to Colin’s apartment. The guy who passes out face down in my crotch waives all right to judge my love life. I check my reflection in the hall mirror a final time, feeling my excitement rise. Colin promised he was pulling out all the stops tonight, so I ducked out on my lunch break to buy a new dress, and even invested in a pair of lacy panties, too. A good girl scout is always prepared. Maybe he’s cooked a candlelit meal for two, or is planning to whisk me off to a fancy restaurant and have me serenaded by a string quartet— The door swings open. “Hey, it’s you.” Colin sees me and thrusts a bag of garbage into my hand. “Can you shove that in the chute? It’s right there. Yeah, just shove it in real good, the damn thing’s jammed.” I blink. He’s wearing a beat-up pair of grey sweatpants and a white T-shirt. Maybe he just hasn’t had time to change yet, I tell myself, still harboring a tiny kernel of hope that for once, a guy might just up and surprise me. “Sure.” I go deposit the stinking sack of trash in the hallway chute. “Umm, hi!” “Hey,” he says, a broad smile on his face. “Glad you could make it.” He opens the

door wider to let me step inside. I look around the room, taking in the piles of empty pizza boxes on the kitchen counter, the clothes strewn all over the living room, and a football game blaring from a flat-screen TV, the announcer’s nasal voice giving me an instant migraine. OK. So we’re definitely heading out to eat. “Want a beer?” he asks, holding up an open one already in his hand. I’m too speechless to answer, not that he notices. He just heads off to the kitchen and opens the fridge, grabs a can of Coors Light before sauntering back to press it into my hand. “Thanks,” I reply weakly. He offered you a drink. That’s . . . polite, isn’t it? “So . . .” I ask cautiously, popping the tab on the can of beer, if only for something to do. “What are we doing tonight?” “You can sit down, you know,” he says, pushing a pile of dirty clothes off the black leather couch and onto the floor. “Sorry about the mess,” he adds. “I’ve been working a lot lately and I just haven’t had time to clean up.” “That’s . . . OK.” I walk over and sit down gingerly. “I’ll just wait here then,” I say, trying not to touch anything. Or look at anything. Or maybe even breathe. But instead of heading for what I hope is a thorough shower, Colin kicks back on the couch and pops the tab on his own beer. “Wait for what?” “You to get ready?” I ask, clinging to desperate hope. He laughs. “I’m all set. I thought I’d order a pizza and we could watch the game.” Is he serious? “But . . . you said something about having a romantic evening . . .” My voice trails off as reality sinks in. This can’t be real. This guy can’t possibly think that beer and football constitutes a romantic evening, can he? Oh, he can. Colin looks at me with this proud expression, like he deserves a freaking gold star. “This is romantic! I mean,” he says, “we’ve got the game on the tube, a little pizza, and maybe later a little . . .” He raises both eyebrows suggestively, looking right at my chest, and I feel nauseous. I’d rather eat my own shoes than a pizza right now. He’s grabbing his iPhone off the coffee table, ready to dial up Domino’s, when I snap out of my shock and jump to my feet. How. Dare. He.

“You think this is romance?” I blurt out, putting my hands on my hips and glaring at him, willing him to burst into flames from the sheer force of my rage. “Football and pizza? Why don’t you just order some f*cking wings while you’re at it!” “Hey,” he says, holding up one hand. “Chill. I mean, you can get as many toppings as you want, okay? Except pepperoni. I hate pepperoni.” “Goodbye, Colin,” I say, before I inflict grievous bodily harm with my purse. “Enjoy your romantic evening,” I yell out, slamming the door shut behind me. WHEN I GET TO ALIBI, Della and Zach are draped all over each other at the bar. It turns out New Year’s Eve was just the beginning of a beautiful relationship for them. They got married last summer in the little courtyard out back, and now Zach owns the place. Funny how things work out. f*cking hilarious, even. But they’re perfect for each other, so it’s not like I can even be mad about it—plus Zach gives me a break on rent for my apartment right upstairs. I’ve never seen Della so happy, although she does take Zach for granted a little too much, in my opinion. Not that anyone actually asked me for my opinion. Besides, I just spent a hundred bucks on lingerie to sit on a guy’s couch and watch the game. “Lizzie!” Della yells out happily as I approach them, throw my purse down on the bar, and slump onto a barstool next to her. Zach’s leaning across the bar, holding her hand in his, and when he sees my face, he extricates himself to make me a gin fizz, no questions asked. Zach doesn’t really say much, but he doesn’t have to. He gets it. Della, on other hand, is full of questions. “You’re back early. How was your romantic date?” she chirps happily. “Don’t ask,” I moan, and put my head down on the bar. “That bad?” Zach asks, putting my drink down in front me. “The worst.” I raise my head long enough to gulp half the glass down. “Easy there, partner,” Zach says. “Keep that up and we’ll be scraping you off the floor.” “Good thing I live upstairs.” I take another swallow, hoping that if I’m drunk enough, I’ll forget this night entirely. Scratch that. Maybe if I keep drinking, I’ll forget the past five years. “What happened?” Della asks, wrinkling her forehead. “I’m so stupid.” I shake my head. “I got my hopes up, and it turns out all he wanted

was to watch the game, order a pizza, and then maybe f*ck me? Prince Charming, right? Apparently this is what constitutes romance these days . . .. at least on Tinder.” “What an idiot,” Zach laughs, as he grabs my glass to make me another drink, throwing the bottle of gin in the air and catching it as effortlessly as Tom Cruise in co*cktail. “He’s so sexy when he does that,” Della whispers at me conspiratorially. “You’re the one who’s sexy.” Zach smiles at her, revealing a dimple in his right cheek that Della once told me she sticks the tip of her tongue into every now and then because it’s so cute and she can’t help herself. “Are you guys even listening to me?” I plead, aware that I sound pathetic, but I’m so dejected right now that I really couldn’t care less. “Most guys are assholes,” Zach sighs, running a hand through his shock of blond hair. “You should see the douchebags that come in here on a regular basis. Their idea of romance is calling a girl an Uber at three a.m.” “So did you just leave?” Della pats my leg softly like I’m a wounded bird. “Of course I left!” I say, taking a sip of the fresh drink Zach slides in front of me. “What was I going to do? Listen to his sh*tty armchair commentary all night while drinking cheap beer?” I shudder. “Did I mention he was wearing sweatpants?” “The horror,” Zach whispers under his breath, channeling Brando in Apocalypse Now. Della giggles and leans to kiss him across the bar. Usually, their adorable coupleness gives me hope, but right now, it’s like a big flashing neon sign: You’ll never have anyone to love. You’re going to die alone. I down the rest of my drink and grab my bag. The only thing that could possibly redeem this night is my own bed. And that Pepperidge Farm coconut cake I have stashed in the freezer for three-alarm emergencies. This is definitely a layer cake kind of night. “I’m taking off, guys.” I give them a wave. Della comes up for air long enough to give me a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry about your date, babe. Maybe the next guy?” “Or the next. Or the one after that.” I salute, and head for the back stairs, pausing on the landing to take off my heels before I continue up the other two flights to my apartment. Sure, the commute is a bitch, but I have calves of steel now, and I’m never more than eighty seconds from a co*cktail.

But tonight, booze is the last thing I need. And even my trusty Pepperidge Farm can’t fill the aching void in my chest. Another sh*tty date. Another guy who can’t seem to care less if I’m even in the room. Is this really the most I can expect from dating? God, I might as well swear off men for good and go sign myself up for a convent at this rate, like a reverse Maria from The Sound of Music, except without annoying singing children. Or Nazis. I’m just so damn tired of trying. I sink down on the couch and sigh. I’ve been doing this too long: the first dates, getting my hopes up only to have them smashed to smithereens amongst the dirty laundry on my date’s floor. It’s been three long years since Todd walked out, and I’m closer to getting a loyalty card at my local sex toy store than I am to finding a decent man. “At least with a vibrator, you know exactly what you’re getting,” I say aloud. “Sure, they won’t cuddle, but they don’t use your chest for target practice, either.” OK, talking to myself. Not a good sign. I grab my laptop, praying my sister’s online so I can avoid slipping into dubious mental health territory, but her status icon is marked unavailable. I slump back, then I see the video icon winking at me. All my emotions are still bottled up, and I know I need to get this out if I’m going to sleep tonight, so I push my hair back, set the computer on the table, and hit record on a message for her.

7 LIZZIE

11.22 P.M. RECORDING: ON “Is this thing working? OK. Hey, it’s me, I know you’re probably off snuggling with your dear husband, but some of us are still in the trenches trying not to drink ourselves into oblivion just to make it through the night. Yup, I had another sh*tty date. And yes, I know, I just have to keep trying, but come on, if the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting different results then I’m certifiably crazy by now. I don’t understand it! What the hell happened to men? I mean, I know getting nostalgic is stupid, and the past was full of all kinds of terrible things, like polio, and lynching, and women needing permission from their husbands before they can get a job in the typing pool, but I don’t know . . . I feel like we lost something along the road there, some kind of courtship, or romance, or men acting like they gave a damn about love, and it wasn’t just some game to pass the time they could swipe for on a f*cking app and have us show up on their doorstep like they called out for dry cleaning, you know? You remember that story Mom used to tell us, about how Dad swept her off her feet? He saw her in class, and brought her flowers every day for a week before she agreed to go out with him. And then he kept showing up with that same bunch of white roses on their anniversary every year. At least, until, you know . . . And yes, our parents are like the worst role models for a functioning relationship, but that story always made me feel better about them, somehow. They tried. It may have all gone to sh*t in the end, but it started on the right track, didn’t it? And now, all I can think is that nobody is even willing to try for me. Not even one tiny bit. Do you know how much effort I put into these dates? I mean, these days, I’ve cut it back to like the bare minimum, but that still means I have to shave my legs, and put my contact lenses in, and pick out an outfit, and wear cute-butdebilitating shoes, and make sure I go to Vilma the evil waxer once a month, and make sure I don’t eat my body weight in carbs, because god forbid I get to be thirty

and single and overweight. It’s OK for you, you have love. I mean, you really do. You have someone to talk to, and snuggle up with at night, and hold your hair back when you’ve got food poisoning, but some of us are still out here vomiting on the bathroom floor alone! I know, I’m rambling, but it’s just hard, that’s all . . . I want love. I want fireworks, and chemistry, and romance that makes my stomach dance with butterflies. And yes, I realize that sounds naïve, and I’m supposed to be a modern independent woman who f*cks and forgets as good as the next guy, but what can I say? Those afternoons in front of TCM screwed me up, and good. But c’mon, Jess, surely it’s not asking too much to find a man who puts five seconds of thought into showing me a good time? Who finds a moment to plan an amazing date, just to make me smile? Or who cares enough to find out what I like instead of just going through the motions, or even worse, barely looks up from his X-box when I walk in the room? I’m not asking him to fish a damn necklace out of the wreck of the Titanic! Or write me a letter every day for a year! Just don’t assume you get a prize just for showing up and breathing in and out, and that the prize is going to be my puss*! You know what? That’s the problem. Men are so used to getting laid at the drop of a f*cking hat, they don’t even have to pretend to care, let alone actually do it! This entire city is a damn buffet table full of naked women, and if I don’t spread my legs by the third freaking date, then they just move right along to the next chick, no problem. I like sex! I f*cking love f*cking! But it’s like the minute a dude comes, the part of his brain that pays me actual attention switches off. Boom! I should just stop having sex, full stop, and see how they like it then. You know . . . maybe that’s not such a bad idea. Like, a strike. Downing tools until management meets our demands! Hell, every woman should take a time out and close for business until men start showing us some damn romance and consideration. Ha! I bet they’d find a way to pay attention then. f*ck, even Colin would upgrade from his two-for-one wing deal at Sal’s Brewhouse if he couldn’t get laid. Yeah, that’d teach them. No sex until we get a little romance in our lives. Some courtship. You know, in the seventeenth century, Welsh men would spend months carving intricate wooden spoons as a symbol of affection for the girl they were courting. I’m not even asking for some damn whittling, so would a nice candlelit dinner for two be asking too much? I want to be wooed, dammit. Show me the woo! That’s it. It’s decided. All of this is off the market until the men of New York get their woo into action. Let’s see if they can think with their hearts instead of their dicks, for once in the history of the known universe. OK, I better go. Love you babes! Mwah!

8 LIZZIE

THE NEXT MORNING, I feel like a woman reborn. There’s nothing like an epic rant to your sister to help get everything off your chest. All the frustration I’ve been bottling up is finally out of my system, and I feel a million times lighter. Plus, it’s a gorgeous spring day in New York: the cherry blossom is on the trees, my subway train arrives on time, and there’s zero line at the Starbucks on the corner, so I actually bounce into work on time (gasp) and fully caffeinated (double gasp). Today is going to be a good day. I stride through the lobby and head downstairs. “Hey Shauna!” I call to a coworker, but she’s whispering furiously with a group from the Decorative Arts department and only looks up long enough to giggle and smirk as I pass. Weird. I keep walking, making a detour for the break room. OK, so I’ve had my first coffee fix, but it’s Friday, and that means doughnut day. And I deserve some rainbow sprinkles in my life right now. When I walk in the room, the first thing I see is crowd of people talking noisily, gathered around a table, all of them hunched over someone’s phone. Thank heavens for YouTube videos of a cat playing a piano, because for once, the doughnut box is undefended. “Come to me, Boston cream!” I coo happily, making a beeline for the best of the bunch. But as soon they notice me, the conversation stops. I can feel everyone’s eyes on me, and then the whispering starts again. I open my mouth to ask what’s going on, but suddenly they all grab their stuff, talking loudly about work. A guy from the Egyptian collection shoves his phone back into his pocket, an embarrassed grin on his face, and everyone bustles out of the room without making eye contact with me at all. Umm, what? Am I wearing my shirt inside out, or do I have my skirt tucked in my underwear? I

quickly check my reflection in the glass, but there’s no camel-toe to be seen. I feel a shiver of unease. Maybe Morgan’s on the warpath, and decided to cut jobs from our department. But no, that wouldn’t explain the weird smirks. And the phone. Huh. I grab a couple of doughnuts and head down to my office, but I’m on edge now. I’ve just thrown my coat over the back of my chair and settled down to work when Skye walks in, without knocking, of course. Her normally silk-smooth hair looks like she’s gotten caught in a wind tunnel, and she’s out of breath. “Busy morning?” I ask. “Don’t tell me you’re trying that spinning class again? I thought you quit after you f*cked the instructor while riding the stationary bike— which,” I add, “I still think defies the laws of physics. Or decency. One or the other.” Skye looks at me, and her mouth drops open. “Oh . . . my . . . god,” she says slowly. “You don’t know?” “Know what?” She hurries over and starts messing with her phone before placing it on my desk, and all I can see is some video loading. Perfect. The cat video has gone viral. “Look, I love whiskers just as much as the next girl, but I have a lot to do this morning so I would appreciate it if you’d just—” “Just watch!” Skye insists. The video starts. It’s someone's living room: posters on the wall, and a creamcolored couch. “I have that throw!” I note. “It’s super-warm, and—” “Is this thing working?” A familiar voice comes, and my blood turns to ice, because I know that voice. I know that living room. “No. No, no, no, no . . .” I gape at the screen, just as someone sits in front of the camera. And by someone, I mean me. “OK.” I see myself on screen, still dressed up in that red dress from my aborted date with Colin, my mascara flaking and my hair pushed back. “Hey, it’s me.” I give a wave at the camera. To Jess! This was a video for Jess! What the f*ck? “I know you’re probably off snuggling with your dear husband,” I continue, totally oblivious that this video is somehow now PLAYING ON MOTHER-FREAKING YOUTUBE. “But some of us are still in the trenches trying not to drink ourselves into oblivion just to make it through the night.” “Turn it off!” I cry, lunging for her phone. “Turn it off now!”

Skye hits pause. “Sorry.” She makes a face. “I, umm, thought maybe you knew? And it was like a weird performance art thing? My friend Kayla is in this improv troupe, and they do sh*t like this all the time, but then you’ve never been someone who likes the camera, so I didn’t know if I should call you right away. And it’s getting all those hits, and your views are through the roof, and . . .” I close my eyes, willing her to just disappear—and the video right along with it. But Skye keeps chattering, and that image of me frozen on the screen doesn’t melt into oblivion. What the f*ck have I done? The video is out there. In the ether, or the cloud, or wherever it is that abject humiliation and cat videos are stored. Instead of sending the video to Jess the way I’d meant to, I must’ve hit the wrong thing and uploaded it instead. I put my pounding head in my hands, willing a hole to open up directly under my desk so I can crawl in and hibernate until this all blows over. Whenever that is. “Where did you see this?” I ask weakly, hoping that there’s some way to do damage control. Maybe it hasn’t spread that far yet. But if it hasn’t then how does everyone at work know? I think dejectedly, my stomach dropping all the way to my pointytoed black pumps. “Well, I saw it on Jezebel,” she says, looking away. “But I heard a bunch of people in the break room say it’s trending on Facebook, too.” “Oh my god,” I moan, dropping my head into my hands again. “This is a nightmare.” Suddenly, there’s a voice from the doorway. “Well, well. If it isn’t our resident YouTube star. Last night’s date went well, I take it?” Jake. As if this couldn’t get any worse. “Go away!” I call, muffled through my arms. I hear him chuckle. “I take it this wasn’t your planned global debut.” I lift my head to glare at him, wishing for a swirling space vortex to come suck one of us out of this universe, preferably me. Damn, he looks smug, dressed up to the nines again in his perfectly-fitted suit, with a perfectly-fitted pair of pants over his perfectly-fitted ass— Focus.

“Yes, OK, I uploaded it by mistake,” I sigh. “Thanks for the support. Are you here just to gloat or can we actually get to work?” “I can multitask.” Jake strolls over and snaffles one of the doughnuts from my desk. He bites into the sugary goodness and licks frosting off his face. “Mmmm, tasty.” “Umm, I guess I better be going,” Skye says as she edges towards the door. “Good morning, Mr. Weston,” she purrs on her way out. Great. “You can call me Jake.” “OK, Jake.” Skye gives this little giggle, and practically winks as she flounces away. “Hands off my assistant,” I warn him. He holds them up in surrender. “Hey now, I didn’t do anything.” “Nope, but I can see you want to. She’s too nice for the likes of you.” “Gee, thanks.” Jake takes a seat. “Rough night?” “Sounds like you’ve already heard all about it,” I snap, stuffing consolation doughnut into my mouth. “Who hasn’t?” he says with a smirk. “You’re trending all over. There’s even a hashtag on Twitter. Good job, I guess.” Wait, he thinks I wanted this humiliation? “Look,” I start, staring at him over the top of my glasses, “I don’t know what happened. I was trying to send a video rant to my sister, and somehow I guess I pressed the wrong button . . .” His mouth twitches like he’s trying to hold back a smile. “I was just messing around!” I yell. “You can’t possibly think that I uploaded it on purpose? Maybe you’re not paying enough attention, but this is just a tad embarrassing, you know?” I sputter, sure my face is bright red now. God, I hate having pale skin that betrays my every emotion. “So you’re really going on strike?” he asks. “Seems a little extreme. I mean, it was just a bad date, right?” The strike? Now I remember that part. I groan. “Yes. No. I don’t know. What else am I supposed to do? Guys these days wouldn’t know romance if they passed out face down in it.” I can’t resist the dig, and by Jake’s wince, it’s clear he’s finally remembered that little debacle too. “Maybe I should go on strike,” I sigh. “At least then a guy might be motivated to

show a little imagination.” “Withholding sex to get expensive gifts, got it.” Jake gives me a know-it-all look that makes my blood boil. “That’s not what I said!” I protest. “This isn’t about money, it’s about romance.” “Same difference.” He shrugs. “It’s all just window dressing in the end.” “Says the guy in a thousand-dollar suit,” I shoot back. “Look,” I say, pushing my glasses up on my nose imperiously, or as imperiously as I can, considering that I almost died of embarrassment a few moments ago, “Just because your cold bitter heart is closed and you think women are only good for f*cking doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t looking for something real. And if I have to take these goods off the market to find a guy who actually has some substance, well maybe it’s worth the shot.” “Good luck with that.” He smirks. “And for your information, you’ve got me all wrong. I respect women.” “Oh yeah?” I answer sweetly. “So you’ve just been a regular serial monogamist since whatshername, Isabel? I bet you haven’t f*cked the same woman more than twice since that New Year’s.” He clenches his jaw in a way that makes me know I just hit the bullseye. “At least I’m not making false promises, or using sex as a weapon to manipulate people into doing what I want.” “Sure, keep telling yourself that. But there’s something pretty sad about a man in his thirties who’s never had a real relationship.” I can’t resist a final dig. “Better keep trawling for those twenty-two-year-olds, because soon they’ll be the only ones who can’t see through this whole bitter, broken act.” Jake’s eyes flash with something, and I realize I just stepped way over the line. sh*t. Why do I do this? There’s just something about him that drives me crazy, in the “claw someone’s eyes out” way, not the “tear all my clothes off” sense of the word. Although now that I think about it . . . I force my imagination back under control and clear my throat. “So, we should probably get to work. On sourcing the exhibit. Since that’s our actual job.” I open up my laptop and pull up my to-do list for today and hit print. It’s basically a list of all the pieces I’d love to have for the exhibition, and just looking at it gives me palpitations. I’ve already made a bunch of preliminary calls to narrow things down, but still, there’s a ton to do to bring this all together. If we can stop talking about my sex life—or lack thereof—long enough to focus on actual work.

The paper comes sputtering out of the printer in the corner, and I get up and grab it. “How do you want to work this?” Jake asks, his voice cool. “I work best alone.” “Great, me too.” I rip the list right down the middle. “Here,” I say, handing him half. “No cooperation—or conversation—required. In fact, we don’t need to talk at all.” He looks down at the list, then back up at me. Is it my imagination or does he actually look a bit surprised? “Fine,” he says evenly, “if that’s the way you want it. I’ll send you an email update when I’ve finished this.” He holds up the piece of paper, then heads for the door. “Can’t wait!” I yell after him as it shuts. The second he’s gone I rush back to my computer and pull up the Jezebel site, and without stopping to read the story itself, I follow the link to the YouTube page. My mouth opens in disbelief as I scroll down and start to read, and my throat tightens. There are 450,000 views and 2,004 comments. Make that 2,005. This isn’t dying down—it’s just getting started. And it’s not some “little” story either—this is right up there with those viral cat videos, except it’s me, my face, my thoughts, my stupid ranting out there for everyone to see—and comment on. I scroll through the comments quickly, without stopping, and every time I think I’ve reached the bottom of the page, there are more. And more. And more. Oh god. I shut the computer and swallow hard. I’m going to need a bigger doughnut.

9 LIZZIE

FRIDAY CAN’T COME FAST ENOUGH. I just put my head down and power through the week, keeping my focus on work, and the endless mountain of stuff I have to get done before the exhibit opens. Even so, as hard as I try, the whole week feels like one of those dreams where I’m wandering around naked, and everyone’s pointing and staring, and it’s been weeks since I got waxed. In other words, it’s been the WORST. Which is why Saturday comes as a blessed relief. No morning commute with people pointing and laughing and snapping pics on their cellphone. No laughing it all off with my co-workers and acting like sure, haha, being the butt of the internet’s joke is just fine. And no avoiding Jake, because although I haven’t even seen him at the museum this week at all, I know he’s out there with his smug gorgeous face just waiting to judge me for actually wanting to find love. Nope, today is all mine. I sink back into the covers, trying to plan my day. I have plans with Della and the girls, but maybe I’ll sneak in a movie at one of the classic theaters later. I could use a healthy dose of Hepburn right about now. There’s a woman who didn’t take sh*t from anyone—and looked amazing in a pant-suit while doing so. Or maybe I should put in a few extra hours of work. I’ve been pulling late nights all week working the phones, but I’m still having trouble getting all the pieces I want for the exhibit. And yes, the world won’t stop rotating if I can’t secure the original shooting scripts for The Philadelphia Story but I’ll know I failed. And Jake will too. Jake . . . His face pops into my brain, and damn, if it isn’t a handsome one. Is it a law of the universe that a guy’s hotness is usually in indirect proportion to how decent a person he is? Maybe it’s because they get to slide through life having everyone fall at their feet.

Or on their couch. I blush, remembering New Year’s Eve in all its disappointing glory. As much as it’s been fun teasing Jake about his early nap time, I’m definitely compensating for my own embarrassment, too. I mean, if someone falls asleep at a, uh, crucial moment, it kind of implies you weren’t exciting enough to keep their attention, right? Or maybe it was all about the whiskey, and nothing to do with me. Either way, I’m hoping the next few weeks won’t get awkward. We’ll have to work pretty closely to get this exhibit ready to open, and I don’t have time to deal with his co*cky attitude. And his smoldering blue eyes. Down girl. I push his face out of my mind. I’m on a strike, remember? No men of any kind until I find the one to sweep me off my feet. And Jake’s made it plenty clear what he thinks about romance. He wouldn’t know true love if he tripped and fell on her— dick first. My cell phone rings, and I reach over to grab it with a yawn. The number lit up on the screen is unfamiliar, and I cringe. It’s probably about my student loans again. God knows when I’ll ever be able to make a payment on time. “Is this Lizzie Ryan?” A female voice asks. “Yeesssss,” I say tentatively, wondering how much I owe this time. Those late fees really add up. “I’m a reporter from the New York Daily News, and I was hoping to get a quote from you for a story I’m writing.” “Sorry, but all press requests go through the main office.” I relax. “I can get you their number, if you give me a minute . . .” “I’m sorry, I don’t think you understand. This is a story about you. Your sex strike.” My what now? I freeze. “I . . . don’t know if I can help you.” I gulp. “I’m sure you’re aware that your video has recently gone viral. I was hoping for a few words.” A story. About me. In the New York f*cking Daily News. For everyone in the city of New York to read, probably with some horrible photo they’ll pull off the web from my ill-advised Audrey Hepburn turtleneck phase. “You’re really hitting a chord. My readers want to know where all this came from.

Who is Lizzie Ryan? What does she want?” Right now, I want to go back to last week and never record the damn video. Hell, I’d prefer a night with Colin and his extra anchovies if it meant I didn’t wind up sharing my epic rant with the world. Suddenly, I feel dizzy. I swallow hard, sitting all the way up in bed and swinging my legs over so my feet are on the floor. Maybe if I stay grounded I won’t faint. “I’m sorry,” I manage to spit out, “I have to go.” “Wait! I was just hoping to—” Before she can say anything else, I hit the End button, and then turn my phone off entirely. Then I bury it under the blankets, just to be safe. So much for blessed escape. I thought this would blow over in a few days, but it’s showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. f*ck. LATER THAT MORNING, I meet Della at a new climbing gym in Williamsburg, appropriately named High Anxiety. Every Saturday we try some terrible workout before our ritual Saturday brunch of eggs Benedict and mimosas. Last week was stripper yoga, but as I look around the room, taking in the rock walls and heavy grunting coming from the male members in attendance, I realize this just may be worse. Della rushes in, bringing the cool spring air in with her, which is a welcome change from the sweaty gym-sock stench of this place. “Sorry I’m late,” Della says. Our friend Melissa is in tow. “We got waylaid by that hottie selling water bottles on the corner.” “The homeless dude?” I ask. Melissa grins. “The hot homeless dude.” We all sink down to the mats in our leggings and hoodies to stretch out. “How are you holding up?” Della extends both legs in front of her and grabs for her calves. I curse her silently. She’s so limber that her forehead practically touches her shins. “Ask me after we get mimosas.” She gives me a sympathetic look. “sh*t, is the video still playing?” “Anywhere with a wifi connection!” “At least you look hot in it,” Melissa chimes in. “That red dress does amazing things for your boobs. Seriously, if I was going to accidentally upload a video to the

world, I’d want my cleavage to look like yours.” “Thanks. I think?” Della yawns. “Late night?” Melissa asks. She nods. “Zach woke up with wood and wanted to get busy. He takes forever to come, by the way.” She adds with another yawn. “Oh poor you,” Melissa giggles. “I’m sure it was just terrible.” Melissa works at the Museum of Sex, where she curates vibrators through the ages all day long, and is writing her master’s thesis on the history of Victorian corsets. We all met at the Alibi one gin-soaked night last year, and have been friends ever since. “It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it,” Della says with a wink. “Speaking of which,” she goes on, turning her head to look at me, “you’re not really serious about this strike? Celibacy is no joke, you know. Your vagin* could dry up from lack of use!” “Della!” Melissa shouts, dissolving into a puddle of giggles. “That is so, so not true.” “It is true,” Della snaps, stretching an arm over her left leg. “I heard it on NPR.” “Guys,” I interrupt, “whether my vagin* dries up is not the point.” Melissa stretches one blue spandex clad leg up into the air. “So what is the point?” “Yeah, Lizzie, what’s the point?” Della parrots as she jumps to her feet, bending over and staring at me from between her legs. I sigh. “The point, I guess, is I want something real. A guy who cares. I mean, they think that they don’t have to do anything to get laid because we’ve let them get away with it for years! Whatever happened to actual dating? You know, candlelit dinners, flowers, a guy leaving a container of chicken soup in front of your apartment door when you’re sick?” “Does that ever actually happen?” Melissa whispers to Della. “I thought the chicken soup thing was just an urban legend!” “The point is,” I say more forcefully, “that they need to shape up before we give it up, you know? And if we make them wait long enough, maybe they’ll change their ways—for good.” “But in the meantime,” Della interjects, “aren’t you going to be horny as hell?” “How is that any different from my normal state?” I laugh. “I mean, it’s not like

I’m giving up a bunch of hot sex every night for this strike—I’m not getting laid anyway!” “She does have a point,” Melissa notes. “I guess so,” Della says grudgingly. “But it still sounds like no fun to me.” “Unlike this?” I point at the climbers on the wall in front of us, dangling from the wall like spiders, and Della gives me a wicked smile. “Come on, ladies,” she says, as she pulls us to our feet. “Let’s hang.” ONE HOUR—and a whole heap of bodily humiliation later—I’m coated with sweat, and sore in places I didn’t even know I had. We head next door to one of the trendy wine bars that have popped up all over the neighborhood: the kind with fifteendollar pancakes and all the mimosas you can drink. “God, I love brunch,” I declare, sinking onto a bar stool. There’s a wait for tables, but that never stopped us before. “Whoever invented it deserves a medal. ‘Sure, let’s make dessert a real meal, and throw in champagne to boot.’ ” “Amen,” Melissa agrees, raising her glass. I’m just taking the first sip of my drink when I spy a familiar face across the room —Jake Weston, in the flesh, and dressed, predictably, in a suit even though it’s a Saturday. Does this guy not own a pair of jeans? Or a pair of kicks, for that matter? His black ankle boots are so highly polished you could probably check your make up in them. Just as I’m turning away, hoping he hasn’t seen me yet, his eyes lock on mine, and he raises his glass at me. Great. Just what I need today—eggs with a side of sarcasm. He’s standing with a couple of guys who look about the same age as him—midthirties—one with brown hair and a shy smile, and the other with “alpha male” written all over him. Great. Before I know it, they’re walking over, Bloody Marys in hand. Well, his friends are walking. Jake is practically sauntering, taking time to flash that million-dollar smile at every hot woman who crosses his path. Quelle rat. “Are you stalking me now?” I ask, when he finally reaches me. “Now, that’s no way to greet your beloved boss.” “Co-worker,” I correct him. “You say potato.” He shrugs. “This is Miles,” he nods to his shy-looking friend,

“and my cousin, Nate.” “Hi, I’m Lizzie.” “Great to meet you!” Miles beams, and shakes my hand enthusiastically. “You work at the Met? That must be fascinating.” I blink. A friend of Jake’s, with manners and enthusiasm? “Yes.” I warm to him immediately. “It’s great.” “I majored in art history,” he says, still smiling. “At least, until my dad threatened to pull my trust fund. Then I switched to business, but it wasn’t nearly so fun.” Suddenly, another woman comes hurrying over. She’s got strawberry-blonde hair, and is wearing jeans and a Doctor Who T-shirt. “Hey babe,” she grins, and I tense. This doesn’t look like Jake’s kind of woman, but then she reaches past him and slides an arm around Nate’s waist. I relax. “Did you order me waffles?” she asks, then catches sight of me. “Oh my god, it’s YOU!” “Ummm . . .” I stare back blankly. “From the video! Wait, you guys know each other?” She looks to Jake, then snorts with laugher. “Oh, yeah, that totally makes sense. Jake would make anyone swear off men. No offense.” “None taken.” Jake rolls his eyes, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He reaches over to take my mimosa. But this time, I’m prepared for his tricks. I snatch it out of reach and take a gulp. “So how’s it going?” the woman asks, wide-eyed. “I’m Julia, by the way, big fan!” “Nice to meet you, Julia. But since when did my sex life become a topic of national discussion?” “Since you have more views than Beyonce,” Julia says. “And I’m an author. Everything’s material. Sorry.” “It’s not going to last, you know. The strike, ” Jake announces. “Wanna bet?” I say, draining my glass. I’m getting the feeling I’m going to need liquid courage for this conversation. “Admit it, you need us.” Jake gives a co*cky grin. I snort. “Sure, because your track record in this department is golden. Women don’t need a dick to get off,” I add, enjoying his discomfort. “Toys do a much better job anyway. It’s scientifically proven.” “Is it?” Miles laughs. “Maybe I should go buy some for Tatiana when we’re done here.”

“Miles and Tatiana just had a baby girl six weeks ago,” Jake explains in a low, conspiratorial voice, “so he’s desperate to get laid again.” “Well, I wouldn’t say desperate,” Miles sighs, setting his glass down on the bar. “I would.” Jake looks at me and smiles, and despite how much he annoys me, I feel it all the way to my stomach. And maybe lower, too. “I mean, having to look at scantily clad women all day while you’re stuck in sexual purgatory?” I must look confused because Miles explains, “I run Dapper,” he says, naming a mega-successful men’s magazine. “I’m working on revamping the website right now.” “So after a day arranging a photo shoot with Charlize Theron, he goes home to his hot Brazilian ex-swimsuit model wife, and . . . nothing,” Jake laughs. “I’m sorry, Miles,” I say sweetly, “that sounds like absolute torture. How you manage to survive each day with a successful magazine, a beautiful wife, and a new baby girl is beyond me.” Julia snorts with laughter again. “I like her,” she says to no-one. “Can we keep her?” “But you,” Jake says, pointing a finger at me. “You, on the other hand, you’re doing this sex strike of your own free will! Miles, here, doesn’t have a choice. I’m telling you, it’s not going to last. A few weeks, tops. Unless you’re having issues with your libido,” he adds, fake sympathetic. “Is that what this is about?” “My libido is just fine,” I say coolly. “I told you, a toy is just as good—if not better than any dick in town. Particularly in this town, I might add.” “Maybe you just haven’t met the right dick,” Jake says flirtatiously. Oh brother. “You’re right, I haven’t,” I shoot back with a smile. “And the tongue round here isn’t great either. No stamina, if you know what I mean.” Julia looks interested. “Am I missing something here?” Jake chokes on his drink. “No, nothing.” He gives me a warning look. I laugh. At least our NYE misadventures give me a trump card to play, but I think I’ll save it for another day. “It’s a long story. Another time.” Someone taps me on the shoulder and I turn. It’s our hostess, a cute woman in her twenties with curly dark hair. “I couldn’t help overhearing,” she says, eyes wide, “You’re the one going on strike, right?” I cringe. Is there no escape? “She’s the one,” Jake announces loudly, and I shoot daggers at him. But instead of

more gossip and laughter, the hostess claps her hands together. “Oh my god, you’re like, an inspiration! I agree with everything you said. I’ve decided to do it too,” she says proudly. “I’m going to teach my asshole boyfriend a lesson!” “Uh, good luck.” I’m shocked. Someone actually agrees with me? “You too!” She squeezes my arm and then says, “I’ll show you to your table whenever you’re ready.” I gesture for Della and Mel, and they follow the hostess over. “Nice meeting you,” I tell Julia and Nate. “And you better watch out,” I tell Jake, who’s watching with a surprised look. “Looks like the strike is really taking off. Who knows? Maybe I’ll amass an army of sex strikers!” Jake regains his composure. “I wouldn’t bet on it. So you’ve got some press.” He shrugs. “It’ll die down in about a week or so—if that. It’s not like people have much of an attention span these days, you know.” Ugh, he’s so smug! But I have to admit, part of me wants to agree with him so this can all be over. But there’s no mistaking the fact that part of me also likes the fact that the strike—and everything it represents—seems to have struck a chord. If the price for educating the men of NYC happens to be my dignity, then what the hell, maybe it’s a price worth paying!

10

LIZZIE

ALL IT TAKES IS a couple of weeks—and one viral video—and my life is suddenly way out of control. The strike has taken on a life of its own, spawning think pieces on websites like Jezebel and The Huffington Post, segments on Good Morning America and The View, and has inspired so many blog posts that I can’t even keep track of them. Not that I have to worry about it, though, since Skye’s been spending her free time organizing all the press in a file on my laptop—in spite of the fact that she doesn’t really get what all the fuss is about in the first place. “I mean, this is just the way things are,” she says while dragging blog posts to separate folders on my computer. “So guys are selfish and lazy. It’s part of dating in the twenty-first century! And, really, it’s always kind of been this way, hasn’t it? I mean, as long as I can remember, anyway.” I laugh. “That’s because you’re a fetus. But since you’re asking, then no. No it hasn’t. There is a world that existed before apps and booty calls took over, you know. It’s called dating. And it’s a grown-ups-only zone.” She waves her hand like she’s shooing away a fly. “But that’s so old-fashioned. I mean, who has time for that kind of stuff anymore? It’s just not the way we live!” “Well, isn’t that the problem?” I muse, gaining confidence now. “I mean, we order up dates now the way we order in Chinese food, for f*ck’s sake!” “But what’s wrong with that?” She looks genuinely confused. “Oh my god, Skye!” I throw up my hands in exasperation. “Everything! It’s the death knell of romance! It means we’d rather choose convenience over real human connection! Over real feelings!” “But it doesn’t have to,” she pouts, closing the laptop and sitting back in my desk chair. “Look at Spencer and me—we met in person, not on an app—and he can be very romantic, I’ll have you know. He hardly ever makes me sleep in the wet spot. And just the other night, for instance, when I wasn’t feeling well, he researched Zika on the internet for two hours to make sure I didn’t have it. I guess he’s kind of

a germaphobe, but still—he cared enough to check!” “Skye,” I say firmly, leaning forward and enunciating every word. “That’s. Not. Romance. It’s hypochondria! They’re not really the same thing.” “So what’s the difference?” Just then the door opens and my boss, Morgan, comes stampeding in, her armful of bracelets and tangle of necklaces jangling noisily. Morgan likes to really pile it on before a workday. The good news about this is that as a result, she’s kind of like a cat with a bell—I can usually hear her coming from a mile away before I ever catch sight of her. Which generally gives me time to hide. Except today, I’m not so lucky. She looks at me expectantly, opening her lips in a wide smile. In fact, she’s practically beaming. Uh-oh. This can’t be good. Morgan’s everyday mode of communication with me usually consists entirely of displeased scowls or impatient sighs. “Lizzie,” she says in a cloyingly sweet voice. “Why there you are! I’ve been looking everywhere!” Everywhere except my office—where I spend the majority of my workday. “I was hoping to have a few words with you—in private,” she half-whispers, shooting Skye a look that could freeze a lava flow in its tracks. Skye may be naive but she can definitely take a hint. Without another word she exits. The minute she’s gone, Morgan sits down in my chair and leans forward with a furtive expression on her face, which doesn’t really move anymore. I swear, this woman’s had so much Botox and filler that her face is practically a landfill. “Lizzie . . .” she starts, looking down at the desk as if she’s studying it. “I was hoping to get your advice on a delicate matter.” “Sure,” I say, reaching into my purse for a Kit Kat and tearing the wrapper off. I skipped breakfast this morning, and I’m starving. Plus, I read this article that said if you eat your dessert first thing in the morning, you’ll actually lose weight! Win/win! “You may know that Bradley and I have been together for quite a while now.” She looks up at me expectantly, as if I know exactly what she’s talking about, and the weird thing is that I do—Bradley is her investment banker boyfriend. I heard her talking about him one day in the cafeteria. “And things have been, well, fairly serious between us for some time. I’ve been

waiting for him to take things to the next level, but he seems perfectly happy to let things go on as they have been . . .” She gives me a tight smile. “The next level,” I say slowly. “You mean locking it down with a ring?” “Well, of course I mean marriage!” She throws her arms up in exasperation. “Haven’t you been listening to a word I’ve said?” Okay . . . I see someone hasn’t taken her Prozac today. Or had her daily Starbucks. Best to tread lightly. “Does he know you’re receptive to such an offer?” I ask in a neutral voice. She lets out a long sigh, like a balloon deflating. “I can’t imagine he doesn’t. We’ve been dating for two years now, and I’ve only hinted around about it a million times. I even sent him links of possible venues for 2018! You have to book these things way in advance, you know, if you want to have any hope of snagging somewhere decent,” she says emphatically, waiting for me to agree with her, as if we’re in exactly the same boat. I nod. “Oh, of course. Definitely.” “So here’s the thing. I’m thinking about using your little strike strategy,” she says firmly, placing both hands palms down on the desk, “to perhaps try and force the issue a bit? I mean, I’m thirty-eight now, you know. I’m not getting any younger. I need to lock this thing down now.” “You mean, refuse to have sex until he proposes?” I gulp. “But the strike isn’t about manipulating anyone,” I say gingerly, aware that I’m on dangerous ground. “Well, maybe that wasn’t its original purpose,” she says smoothly, “but it seems to me that it could prove to be extremely useful in my situation. Don’t you think?” She’s basically daring me to disagree, and as much as I love my job, the whole thing seems kind of icky to me. “Well, maybe,” I start, “but—” Just then there’s a quick rap on the door, and while normally I’d be pissed, this time I’m more than glad for the interruption. Without waiting for me to give the okay, the door opens and Jake walks in, list in hand. “Hope I’m not interrupting anything important, ladies.” “Not at all,” Jake,” Morgan says, beaming at him so hard that I’m sure her dermatologist will lecture her at some later date about the dangers of smiling too much. “I was just getting Lizzie’s input on a personal matter.” She turns back to me, leaning across the desk. “So when should I start the strike? Tonight? Tomorrow morning? Should I send him an email explaining my decision

or just let him figure it out for himself?” “Not you, too,” Jake interrupts. “God, what have you spawned?” he says to me, looking amused. “Frustrated much?” I ask sweetly. “What’s the matter, Jake? Dates not going well lately?” “No complaints here.” He smirks, and Morgan gets up. “I’ll leave you to it,” she says, smiling widely at me. “I think I’ll definitely take your advice, Lizzie,” she says. “But . . . I didn’t . . . you shouldn’t—” The door slams shut behind her. Great. “Trouble in paradise?” Jake asks. Of course, today’s suit is a lightweight navy fabric that not only brings out the blue in his eyes, but ripples off his taut physique like water. Not that I’m noticing or anything. “What do you need?” I ask. “Are you having problems with your list? I’m kind of busy with my own.” “Then maybe I can help. I’m all done.” Jake lets his sheet flutter to the desk. I look down at the piece of paper and every task has been neatly crossed off in red ink. “You cannot be serious,” I tell him in a state of sheer disbelief. “You’re finished already?” “Like it was hard.” “How?” I sputter. I purposefully gave him the hard stuff! “How is that even possible? There were no less than twenty-four items you needed to procure on here! How did you—” “Why don’t you come to lunch with me?” he interrupts, like this suggestion to share a meal is totally normal, like we do this every goddamn day. “Maybe I’ll even tell you my secrets.” I pause. So here’s the thing: on one hand, Jake drives me completely out of my mind, and I’m just as likely to enjoy my lunch with him as I am to stab him with a butter knife. On the other hand, I am hungry, and if there’s any chance he does have some secret to getting this stuff done so quickly, I could sure use it. “Fine,” I say, picking up my bag and walking to the door. “But you’re buying.”

11

LIZZIE

HE TAKES me to Umberto’s, the schmancy Italian place around the corner that directly overlooks Central Park. “Morgan brings all the big-shot donors here,” I say, looking around. “I’ve heard the waiting list is a mile long and—ooh, bread!” Jake smiles and gestures to the waiter to bring some over. It’s not until I have butter melting in my mouth that I sit back in the cozy booth and finally relax. “When I get to heaven, it’s going to be a bakery,” I sigh with pleasure, tearing into another roll. “Nothing but butter croissants as far as the eye can see. Or a doughnut shop. Or a bakery-slash-doughnut shop.” “You know, there’s a place in the West Village that makes cronuts,” Jake says. “No!” “Yes.” He grins, clearly amused by my eternal devotion to carbs. “That’s what makes America great,” I declare. “We see a doughnut, and we think, how much better can this get?” “How much more of a heart attack, you mean.” “I like my moderation in moderation,” I quip, as the waiter returns to take our order. I pick the Bolognese and a glass of red wine and Jake gets some kind of complicated chicken dish with mushrooms, but who cares? We’ve already established I’m a carbs girl. It’s pasta all the way, baby. The waiter departs, and I take a sip of wine and brace myself. “Go on,” I tell him, “we may as well get this part over with.” “Which part?” Jake looks confused. “The part where you gloat about getting your list finished, and make me beg so you feel superior before helping me out.” He laughs. “You sure about skipping through that, because it sounds kind of fun to

me.” I roll my eyes. “Fine. Tell me, O wise one, how did you do it?” I pause. The fact is, I really do want to know. Securing exhibits is a huge part of the job, and if I’m going to move up in the museum I need some of whatever secret sauce Jake has going on. “I mean it,” I add, when Jake just answers with an infuriatingly mysterious shrug. “I’m maybe, kind of, just a little impressed.” His eyebrows shoot up. “Was that, no, could you have possibly just given me a compliment?” “Yeah, yeah,” I sigh. I knew he’d take it and run. “I get it.” “No, I mean, this is great.” He sits back in an arrogant pose. “I knew you’d recognize my innate superiority eventually, but you came around so soon.” “That would make it the first time,” I shoot back, and he laughs. “You’ll never let me forget that, will you?” “Nope.” I grin. “You have to admit, as bad hook-ups go, ours takes the . . . cronut.” Jake laughs, grinning back at me. “Hey, if I’m going to do anything, I go all out. And if I’m going to be a sh*tty anecdote for you, I’m going to damn well be the sh*ttiest date you’ve ever been on.” I laugh. God, this guy is impossible. And impossibly sexy. Damn, with that smile, and those eyes, it’s almost enough to make a girl try for a repeat performance— No! Bad Lizzie! I take another gulp of wine. “But seriously, how do you do it? I mean, I remember you always had a skill for tracking down impossible things, you talked about it all those years ago. But some of the stuff I asked for was ridiculous, like the prop necklace from Bring Me the Stars. That’s an iconic piece, but it hasn’t been seen in forty years.” Jake clears his throat. “About that . . . when I said I got everything, I meant everything in the realm of human possibility. The necklace is even beyond my ample talents. Sorry.” “Oh.” I deflate a little. “That’s OK. I mean, I knew it was a long shot. Still, there’s so much history around it. You know the stories, right?” Jake frowns. “It was custom made for the movie by Harry Winston, wasn’t it?” I nod eagerly. “They made two versions: one was costume gemstones for the movie, but then the producer had them make a real version with diamonds to give to the

lead actress, Moira Hayes. Rumor has it, they were having a torrid affair. They died in a car crash together, went right off Mulholland Drive on the way to an Oscars party. Everyone said the movie was cursed.” I love scandals from old Hollywood. They’re somehow way more glamorous than what Ben and Jen and whatever the Kardashians are up to right now. “Now there’s karma for you.” Jake whistles. “Guess he should have kept it in his pants.” I pause. “I’d have thought you would be cheering him on. Another notch on the bedpost, and all that.” Jake shakes his head. “Hell no. I may not buy into all your romance bullsh*t, but basic human decency doesn’t require roses. No cheating, no lying, no games.” He ticks them off on his fingers. “Be honest, and nobody gets hurt.” “Oh.” I have to say I’m surprised. And weirdly turned on right now. Maybe Jake Weston isn’t the Grade A asshole I thought. Then his eyes go to check out the stacked blonde sashaying past, and I reassess. Grade B, perhaps. “Anyway, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t get a bite on the necklace.” Jake drags his eyes back to me. “But I did find someone who worked on the movie, Max Danforth. He’s in his eighties now, out in LA still. He has a bunch of props and materials from the shoot, I’m trading calls with his assistant to see what we could use.” “Are you kidding?” I stare at him, amazed. “That’s incredible! The movie was such a seminal work, I feel like if we’re going to make any commentary on shifting gender norms, we need something from that era, and Bring Me the Stars was the start of a whole shift in . . .” I trail off. Jake is looking at me strangely. “What?” I ask, self-conscious. “Do I have wine teeth already?” “No, I just . . .” Jake pauses, tilting his head. “You really love this stuff, don’t you.” “Yes,” I say emphatically. “Ever since I was a kid. Movies like this, they show us a different version of the world. They push culture on, and break barriers down, and give us a language to relate to each other. It took me forever to convince Morgan to let me stage this show, but if I can just make it work, I know, it’s going to be amazing.” “Well, alright then.” Jake lifts his glass and taps it to mine. “To Old Hollywood.” “To Old—” I stop dead. “No, no, no . . .” I whimper, seeing someone across the room. Jake turns. “Don’t look!” I hiss at him, then sink lower in my seat, trying to hide out of

sight. “Maybe he won’t see me. Maybe he won’t . . .” “Lizzie!” Drat! I haul myself upright and paste on a smile as Todd waves and heads over. My exboyfriend Todd. The man who shredded my heart like Guy Fieri with a butt of pulled pork. The guy I haven’t seen since he left me in the dust for the blond nymph of a woman he’s dragging along behind him. “Kill me now,” I murmur to Jake. “Seriously. Just stick that fork right in my throat. If you do it hard enough, you’ll hit an artery, right?” He looks totally confused, but before I can explain, Todd arrives at the table. “Well, well,” he says good-naturedly. “Long time no see.” Long time no see? That’s the best he can come up with after pulverizing my heart and leaving me in a Tinder desert? “Hey Todd,” I say breezily, like I run into evil exes all the f*cking time. “How’s it going?” “Things are great,” he says firmly. He pulls the girl in front of him like he’s holding up a trophy. “Especially since Harmony and I just got engaged last night!” Harmony gives me a simpering smile, like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, and I have the urge to pick up my half-eaten plate of spaghetti and dump it over her perfectly styled head. “Wow!” I gasp, feigning excitement. “How wonderful for you both! I mean, you guys clearly deserve each other!” “Thank you,” he says, staring into Harmony’s eyes like he wants to disappear. “This is Jake Weston,” I say, waiting for Todd to come back to earth. “Hey man,” Todd says coolly, nodding his head at Jake, who just stares at him silently. “Well, we should be going,” Todd continues, wrapping an arm around Harmony and squeezing her tight. “We’re on our way to Tiffany’s!” Harmony squeals, and I realize that I really may throw up if they don’t leave soon. I nod wordlessly and smile. I don’t trust myself enough in this moment to actually open my mouth and speak. God knows what might come out. “It was great running into you, Lizzie,” Todd says, reaching out and briefly squeezing my shoulder. “You’re looking very . . . healthy,” he says with a smirk, taking in my half eaten plate of food before turning around and heading for the

door, his arms wrapped around Harmony’s shoulders. I slide horizontal in the booth until I’m laying flat, staring at the underside of the table. “Lizzie?” Jake’s voice comes, but it’s kind of hard to hear through the swirling rage of anger and self-loathing and misery and general doomsday despair. Healthy. The bastard called me healthy! And he sure doesn’t mean it looks like I’ve been hitting the gym, either. SUPER RAT.

12

LIZZIE

THROUGH THE HAZE of my embarrassment and despair, I hear Jake’s voice speaking softly to the server, ordering drinks. When I finally look up, our plates have disappeared and a margarita with a shot of Cuervo is waiting in front of me. “I thought a real drink was in order after that,” he says, gesturing to the martini in front of him, the vodka clear and cool as an ice floe. “Your infamous ex, I take it?” “Gee, how did you guess?” I throw the shot back first before licking the salted rim of my glass. “I’m quick that way,” he says, and I notice that there’s no sarcasm in his voice. He’s looking at me with sympathy, and that’s when I know I’m in trouble. “I know I should be over him,” I sigh, gulping my margarita down in one before I come up for air. “And I am! But it still f*cking hurts. I mean, look at him: he screwed me over, and he still got the fancy job and the perfect girlfriend. I thought karma would bitchslap him for me, but clearly, there’s no such thing as justice in this world. His life is even better than when he left me! But mine’s still a mess.” The alcohol hits my bloodstream with a fiery burn. I reach over and pluck the olives out of his glass, and before he can protest, I pop them in my mouth. Mmm. Blue cheese stuffed. What can I say? You snooze, you lose. I call for the waiter again. “Another round,” I say, since Jake’s buying. “But I’ll have one of those,” I point to his glass. “Extra olives.” The waiter scurries away, and Jake raises an eyebrow. “Are you sure? It’s one p.m.” “You’re really going to pick this battle?” I ask. “He called me fat!” I drain the dregs of my wine glass for good measure. “He didn’t—” Jake stops when I glare. “OK, he did, but he’s a f*cking douchebag. You’ve known that for years. Why are you letting him get to you?” “Because he WON.”

The waiter brings our drinks in double-quick time, so I knock mine back then start on Jake’s too. “Everyone knows there’s a winner and a loser to every breakup,” I explain. “The one who gets to live an awesome life, and the one who’s left crying in the dust. I figured maybe, in time, I could even the scales. You know, the hare and the tortoise, it’s a marathon not a sprint.” I know I’m mixing my metaphors here, but the booze is definitely hitting me now, and it feels good. Numb and hazy and better than feeling like an anvil just crashed into my chest, that’s for sure. “Sure, he used me and dumped me and stole the best, most pert years of my life, but it was early days! He could get fired, and Harmony could pass along a pesky STD, and he could get hooked on high-price dominatrices and spend his life savings and wind up living in a grotty shared apartment with annoying NYU students lamenting how his life went downhill ever since he left me. There was hope!” I bang the table for emphasis, and Jake tries not to laugh. “So, keep hoping,” he grins, trying to pry his martini out of my hand. I snatch it away. “No hope! I mean, look at him. At them. They’re perfect. He upgraded to the life he’s supposed to have, and I’m stuck here.” “With a great job, and friends, having lunch with a charming, handsome man,” Jake says. “Sounds pretty good to me.” “I know, I know,” I sigh. “I have a good thing going. But did you see the way he looked at her? I want someone to look at me like that.” “With a squint?” I snort. “He always did have a lazy eye.” “There you go, think of it as a lucky escape.” Jake grins. “Between his squint, and her rabbit little teeth, their kids are going to need some serious health insurance.” “And therapy,” I add, more cheerful. I finish his drink, and grab my purse. “I guess we should get back . . .” “To the office?” Jake laughs. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” “I’m fine!” I stand up abruptly—and then slump back down as the room starts to spin. “sh*t, I’m drunk.” For some reason—probably two martinis, a margarita and a glass of wine—the thought seems hilarious. I break out in uncontrollable giggles. “Real sober.” Jake gets the check, then gently helps lift me out of the booth. “Shhh,” I whisper, trying to put one foot in front of the other. “It’s a secret!” “Easy there.” He manages to guide me to the exit without any major mishaps, his arms wrapped tightly around my waist.

Mmmm. His arms. Does he work out, I wonder? He must, to get biceps like that. And rock-hard abs, and his ass— Jake snaps his fingers. “Eyes up here,” he says, chuckling. Whoops! “I’ll call Skye,” he says. “Tell her you’ll be out at meetings for the afternoon.” “It’s a plan, Stan.” “Now let’s get you home.” He takes hold of me again, and for the sake of my libido, I shake him off. “I can get an Uber.” I scrabble in my purse for my phone for two long minutes until Jake sighs. “I can take you.” “It’s fine!” I protest, searching. “It’s right here . . .” I kneel down and upend my purse on the sidewalk. Gum and keys and loose change and old lip glosses go spilling out in every direction. “Ahah!” I find my phone. “See?” “Clearly.” Jake helps clean everything up. A rolled-up playbill for a show I went to in 2014 goes fluttering past. “Jesus, what don’t you have in there?” “A woman’s purse is her secret kingdom,” I declare dramatically. “Know the purse, know the woman.” “Oh yeah?” Jake holds up a condom. “Ribbed, huh? I’ll keep that in mind.” I snatch it back, blushing furiously. “You know what? Keep it.” I change my mind and tuck it in his shirt pocket. “I won’t be needing it anytime soon.” “The strike.” He smirks. “Good luck with that.” “Thank you!” I take off, sashaying away like I saw Harmony do earlier, but I’ve only made it a few steps when Jake grabs my elbow and gently turns me around. “This way, doll. C’mon, I’ll take you home.” He hustles us across the street and stops in front of a car—and not just any car, either, but a silver Aston Martin parked in the loading zone. Because of course. He walks around to the passenger side and unlocks the door, and meanwhile my jaw is on the sidewalk and I’m pretty sure I’ve begun sweating because this car is the very definition of perfection. I’m not even into cars that much and I have goosebumps, even though it’s seventy-five degrees and sunny. “Are you going to get in? Or do you need a written invitation?” I slide onto the butter-soft leather seat and moan. “How do you have this car? f*ck, I want to MARRY this car.”

Jake laughs, getting behind the wheel. “It was a gift.” “From GOD?” “Almost. A Saudi prince who wanted something very specific that I managed to find.” “Hookers and blow?” I ask, before I can stop myself. He laughs again. “Actually, a limited-edition sneaker. Real gold thread in the laces, and diamonds in the tread. They only made three pairs.” “Rich people are ridiculous.” I put the seat back and practically spread my legs right there. “But they have the best cars.” “Agreed.” He slides a pair of Ray-Bans over his eyes and starts the engine, and I swear to god this car literally purrs. It’s unreal. He reaches across me and opens up the glove compartment and, I kid you not, he takes out a pair of brown suede gloves, pulling them over his long fingers. “Driving gloves?” I moan. “You have got to be kidding me.” “Do I look like I’m kidding?” he retorts, adjusting the rearview mirror before putting the car in drive. No, unfortunately, he looks damn sexy right now. I’m a shallow, shallow person, but f*ck, this car looks good on him. “Where to?” he asks as we glide out into traffic. “Williamsburg,” I answer, giving him my address. I roll down the window to let in the fresh spring air. “And step on it.” THE BUTTER-smooth motion of the car, plus the pasta, plus the booze must have lulled me into a drunken stupor, because when I open my eyes again we’re parked in front of my building. “Thanks for the ride,” I say, rubbing my bleary eyes while struggling to open the door. “More booze?” Jake looks at the entrance to the bar. “Lizzie, do you need to talk about it?” “I live upstairs!” He laughs. “Just checking.” He comes around and takes me by the arm, helping me upstairs. After what seems like a millisecond, and completely against my better

judgment, Jake Weston is in my apartment. He looks around as I kick my shoes off and toss my coat onto the couch. “Nice place,” he says, walking over to a framed print of Hitchco*ck’s Vertigo. “Cozy.” “I think you mean small,” I yawn. “That too,” he says, turning around and giving me that know-it-all smile that drives me f*cking crazy. “But in a good way.” Good, as in I’m only a couple of feet away from him, close enough to see that adorable little dimple in the cleft of his cheek when he grins like that . . . No Lizzie. Bad Lizzie. Down, girl! “Look,” I say, holding onto the chair for support. “Thanks for bringing me home and all, but I should really be going.” Umm, what? His smile deepens, and he’s clearly amused with my drunk ass. “I mean, you should really be going,” I correct myself. “Before I jump your co*cky, arrogant bones.” “What did you just say?” Jake snorts. sh*t, did I say that part out loud? I groan. “I’m drunk. You know what I mean.” “You want me,” he teases, laughing. “I don’t! Well, a little,” I admit, burning up with embarrassment. “But you want me too.” I glare. “Says who?” Jake steps closer. “Says me.” I meet his gaze with a challenge. “You bought me lunch.” “A business expense.” Jake keeps grinning like the cat that got the f*cking canary, igniting that itch in my blood made up of one part irritation and seventy million parts pure, inexplicable lust. “You got me drunk.” “You did that all on your own.” “You brought me home.” “To avoid any public safety hazards.” Somehow, he’s right in front of me, so close I can smell his aftershave and feel the heat from his body. He smirks, so damn sure of himself. I need to wipe that look off his face so I do the only thing possible, the only reasonable thing in this situation,

if you really think about it. Which I don’t. I kiss him. Hard. Jake stumbles back, surprised, but then he returns the favor, grabbing me closer and kissing me like, f*ck, I don’t even know, all I know is that it’s good. Mmmm . . . He’s sliding his tongue into my mouth, his hands at my waist, moving down over my hips and squeezing my ass. I gasp against his lips, and when my eyes flutter open I see that he’s staring right at me, daring me to stop. No f*cking way. I throw my arms around his neck, bringing his mouth back to mine. And just like that we’re moving across the room, crashing into the standing lamp on our way to the bed, his hands in my hair and that body hard against me. Point of order: he definitely works out. Jakes slams me up against the wall, and f*ck, it just makes me hotter. I haven’t been kissed like this in years. Decades, even. Centuries! I can feel how hard he is through his pants, and when I close my hand around him, he lets out this strangled groan that turns me on like crazy. I stroke him through his pants, and he bends his head to my breasts, pulling the neckline of my dress to the side, sucking my nipples through my black lace bra until I want to scream. I pull his head closer as his tongue moves expertly until the lace covering my nipples is wet through—just like my panties. His hands slide lower, and then, f*ck, he’s slipping his fingers up inside my panties, pushing them aside to stroke my cl*t in slow, steady strokes. I moan, thrusting against his hand as I reach for his belt, unbuckling it with one hand. f*ck, I want him. I need this. It’s been so long since I came my brains out, and god only knows when I’ll have the chance again— I freeze. f*ck. The strike. “GODDAMIT!” “Not the reaction I was looking for.” Jake comes up for air, his hair all mussed and his breathing coming fast. He slides his hands around my waist, moving lower, and gives me a devilish grin. “But what the hell, let’s try that again.” “Nope. No. No, no, no!” I push him away. “What are we doing? Oh my god, what am I doing? I’m supposed to be on strike! And you’re the guy who thinks romance is nothing more than a way to get some puss*, and here I am, just giving it to you!” “I’m willing to work out our differences, if you are.” Jake grins and reaches for me again. I shake my head. “You need to leave, Jake. Like now.” Before I do something I regret. In five different positions.

Jake sighs and refastens his pants. “Sure you want me to go?” he asks with a wicked grin. “What happens in Williamsburg stays in Williamsburg.” “Go!” I toss a throw pillow at him, and he ducks, laughing. I slide to the floor. That was close. Too close. Or not nearly close enough. I bury my head in my hands as Jake grabs his keys, but instead of the sound of the door closing, I hear footsteps, and the sound of the faucet in my kitchen. “Here, take two now and save yourself the hangover.” I look up. Jake crouches beside me, and hands me a glass of water and two aspirin. I blink, surprised by the gesture. “Thanks.” “And don’t worry,” he adds with a gentle smile. “As far as I’m concerned, you won the breakup. After all, you got to make out with me.” Before I can yell, he laughs and saunters to the hall. The last I hear of Jake Weston is a click as the door gently closes behind him.

13

JAKE

“TELL me you got her to break the strike,” Miles greets me, with desperation in his voice. I laugh, grabbing my burger and chowing down. Man, there’s nothing better than eating a burger while you’re sitting outside in the warm air drinking a beer. Spring is the best time to be in New York, hands down. Hell, it’s the best time to be alive, really. And since Shake Shack is the apex of all these things, it’s one of my favorite places in the city. “You need to get it together,” I say through a mouthful of perfectly seared beef. “It’s not Lizzie’s fault your wife is holding out on you. Wasn’t she turning you down way before this stupid strike?” “She says she’s been inspired now.” Miles slumps, morose. “Apparently, I’m not giving her what she needs. But when I asked what she needed, she said I should already know!” “Marriage.” I shrug. “Sucks to be you.” “Thanks for the support.” Miles picks listlessly at his food. “I don’t suppose you’ve been starving for female attention, strike or no strike.” I flash back to Lizzie, up against the wall. f*ck, that was hot. Like four-alarm fire hot. Which makes her strike even more ridiculous, because she’s clearly a redblooded woman when it comes down to it. With a weirdly strong sense of selfcontrol. I don’t think anyone’s ever taken my pants off and then demanded I leave, but I guess I’ll never understand women. At least she’s not making it awkward— it’s been a few days since our nooner, but she’s acting like nothing happened at all. Which weirdly is kind of insulting. I mean, I’m pretty sure she was enjoying herself, if those gorgeous pert nipples and damp panties were anything to go by. “Can’t you say something?” Miles pleads. “You’re working together now, right?” When I can keep my hands off her.

“Tatiana’s complaining now that I’m not romantic enough. I mean, I brought home takeout the other night when she didn’t feel like cooking, and I always remember to take out the trash! Well, Simon does it, but I always remember to remind him. That counts, right?” I stifle a smile, taking in Miles’ anguished expression. Simon is their houseman, and Tat and Miles own an entire brownstone in Park Slope. It’s not like Miles ever so much as folds his own laundry, much less takes out the garbage. They have a staff of ten to handle the day-to-day crap of their lives—including two full-time nannies and a driver. “How long do you think it’s gonna last?” “Who knows?” Miles throws up his hands in exasperation. “And she’s Brazilian! They’re some of the most stubborn women on the planet! I’m doomed, Jake, I’m telling you.” “Look,” I tell him. “This strike thing isn’t going to last forever. In a week or so, women will get tired of it and move on. Plus, eventually they’ll get horny, and that’s where we come in.” I think about coming in Lizzie, and immediately get hard. f*ck, tenting in the middle of Madison Square Park. What am I, fourteen? “I said as much to Tat, but she just told me that’s why God invented vibrators. Then she went out to the Pink puss*cat—you know, that store on Grand? And she came home with a whole BAG of them! Big ones, little ones. The ones in the shape of a little butterfly? It’s a disaster.” He looks around the park, taking in the teeming crowd lined up in front of the restaurant. “I wonder who the lucky guy will be,” he muses. “To f*ck your wife?” I crack. “No, asshole.” He smiles for the first time since we sat down. “To break Lizzie’s strike. I mean, I’d bet guys would be lining up to do the deed, just so they could say they’re the one that ended it, you know?” My phone buzzes with the alarm I set, and realize I have to get a move on if I’m going to make visiting hours at my grandpa’s place. “You out of here?” Miles asks, watching as I ball up my napkin and throw my trash on our tray. “Sure, just abandon me in my time of need,” he sighs. “You’ll be fine, bro.” I slap him on the shoulder. “Just go home, jerk off, and stop thinking about sh*t you can’t control.” “It’s alright for you to say. If a woman turns you down, you can just move on to the next one. But Tatiana’s my wife.”

Like I said, marriage. I HEAD over to the Upper West Side, where the streets are still tree-lined and quiet, and haven’t been overrun with hipster coffee shops serving six-dollar almondmilk lattes. Silver Harbor is one of the nicest assisted living facilities in the city, with spacious suites, round-the-clock medical staff, and more activities than a cruise liner. I moved my grandpa Hank in here after his first heart attack a couple of years ago. It’s pricy as hell, but the old man deserves it. He practically raised me, so the least I can do is make sure he spends his twilight years some place with pizza delivery and Monday-morning yoga. The nurse on duty looks up from her computer and smiles at me. “Hi, Jake. Right on time. Hank’s in his room, I think. Tell him we missed him during morning workout.” “Thanks, Nina.” I sign in. “You should tell him yourself. I think he’s got a crush.” I wink, and she laughs. “He’s a rascal,” she says. “You just tell him I’m on strike.” “On strike?” I echo, with a sinking feeling inside. “For romance.” Nina beams. “I saw a story about it on Good Morning America last week. So I’m not having sex until men shape up.” Jesus. This thing really does have a life of its own. “Well, good luck with that,” I say and walk away. I walk through the common room on the way to Hank’s suite. There are seniors all around, playing cards at small tables, reading in front of the fire that seems to be constantly crackling in the early evenings here, winter through spring. Hank is sitting up in bed when I come in, playing a game of backgammon with a busty blond nurse, her cleavage all but falling into his lap as she leans over the board. He’s wearing his favorite navy-blue smoking jacket, his white hair carefully combed back from his face. His blue eyes sparkle merrily as he grabs the dice and rolls them theatrically before he turns to greet me. “Jake, my boy!” he says in his big, booming voice as I reach over to shake his hand, knowing better than to lean in for a hug with a dame in the room—his term, not mine. “Hey Hank,” I say, as the blond gets up. “I’ll see you later, I hope?” she asks, smiling.

“You bet!” Hank turns to give her a wink before she sidles out the door. I chuckle under my breath as I watch her go. Once a player, always a player. Or should I say playboy? “How are you?” Hank exclaims. “Sit down, sit down!” He gestures to the newly vacated chair and I sink into it and look around. We moved in all his favorite furniture and effects, so Hank’s suite is like stepping into a gentleman’s club, circa 1962. He’s got a bar cart set up with crystal tumblers, autographed prints of Sinatra and Brando on the wall, and even a vintage record player that I just know he uses to tempt all the hot seniors back to his room. “I’m good,” I say, relaxing. Hank’s suite is the only place I feel entirely like myself, where I can really let my guard down. “Busy. I’m working on acquisitions for a new show opening at the Met in a few months.” “The Met again?” Hank raises an eyebrow. “Well, well, they must’ve been quite impressed with your work the last time around to ask you back again. Well done!” “It’s a job,” I say with a shrug, not wanting to talk about work, or the stupid strike, or Lizzie and the make-out session in her apartment, which I can’t seem to stop thinking about. “So what’s going on with you and the blond?” I ask, trying to change the subject. “Just a flirtation, my dear boy, nothing more. I’m far too old to be domesticated,” he says with a smile. He’s been a bachelor for almost thirty years now, since Grandma passed, and he always says that marriage is unnatural—good for the man, terrible for the woman. “Anything in that pocket for me?” he asks, his smile turning devilish as he rubs his hands together. “But of course,” I say, and with a flourish I pull my flask from my pocket, and hand it over. Hank gave it to me on my college graduation, and I try to always keep it stocked with his favorite whiskey, Macallan 25. “I love this piece,” he says, turning the flask over in his hands. It shines under the Tiffany lamp at his bedside, and I watch as he runs his fingers over my initials, engraved on the side. “I found it in a little shop in Paris on the left bank, sometime in the fifties. Back then, Paris was a playground—women everywhere! They wore silk stockings with seams that drove me half out of my mind, and little hats with veils. Every chance meeting was a flirtation, my boy. Every sigh leading to a kiss . . .” His voice drifts off, lost in memory. And even though I’ve heard these stories a thousand times, I love all of it. “Anyway,” he goes on, coming back to life and waving one hand, “I’d met this salesgirl on the Rue Cambon, cute little strawberry blond, Mimi, I think her name was, and she told me about the place—after she took me home, of course. Said it

was the best kept secret in town.” “You or the shop?” I joke. “The shop, of course!” He laughs. “Though she wasn’t exactly complaining about my ministrations either.” He cackles, handing the flask back to me. “In fact, she set me up with her friend Simone the next evening, said she had to take me for a test drive. Can you imagine?” Knowing the perennial bachelor and puss* hound that is my grandfather as well as I do and as long as I have, yes. Yes, I can. “Those were the days.” He leans back into his nest of pillows. “No commitment, no attachment, just craven lust and then sweet, sweet goodbyes before you were on to the next target. And the next,” he says wistfully. Before I can agree with him, my phone rings. I reach to turn it off—Hank can’t abide by interruptions—but he gestures for me to answer. “Time for my constitutional,” he says, and heaves himself out of bed. He hates feeling weak, so I stop myself from helping him and answer the call instead as he slowly trundles to the bathroom. “You’re a f*cking genius, you know that?” It’s Miles, sounding weirdly excitable. “Any reason in particular?” I ask. “Your idea, about the strike,” he answers as if I’m being dense. “Listen, I’m setting a bounty—the magazine is going to pay fifty thousand dollars to whoever gets Lizzie to cave.” “Whoa.” I stop him. “I never said that!” “You said that guys would be lining up to break it, right?” “Yeah,” I admit, “But—” “Well, I’m just giving them a little incentive, that’s all. Fifty thousand of them.” “Miles, this is a bad idea.” I warn him. Putting a bounty on Lizzie’s . . . maidenhead? Try the worst f*cking idea in the world. “You don’t understand. I need to get laid—and soon! I’m not gonna last another month, Jake. f*ck, I may not last another week! Who knows how far this strike could go if I—if we—don’t do something to stop it?” He’s lost his mind. “Wouldn’t it just be easier to buy Tatiana some roses and whisk her off to a tropical beach somewhere?” I point out. “Also, way less expensive!” “Are you kidding? This is going to be great for the magazine. Just think of the pageviews.” I hear noise in the background. “Gotta go, bro. Tatiana just got home

and I need to get this done before she comes in here with her nightly list of chores, none of which involve me f*cking her senseless, I’m sorry to say. She keeps walking around in front of me in her underwear, Jake! And I know she just had a baby and everything but she looks phenomenal. I’m in hell,” he moans. “But not for long.” “Miles, seriously. A bounty is a f*cking moronic—” But before I can finish, he’s gone. “f*ck,” I say under my breath. And I thought the strike was stupid enough. But now Miles is going to double-dare the men of New York to get in her pants? This can’t end well.

14

LIZZIE

OK, so drunkenly making out with Jake Weston wasn’t exactly planned, but I can be cool about it. I can pretend like I wasn’t thirty seconds away from tearing off all our clothes and begging him to take me now. Ugh, when will I learn never to drink in the daytime? When? And when will I learn not to kiss pompous, narcissistic assholes like Jake Weston? Even if it was probably one of the top ten best kisses of my life so far . . . Hell, making out with him was better than most of the sex I’ve been unlucky enough to have, so god only knows what it would have been like if I hadn’t put the brakes on when I did. Way to go, Lizzie. Cut short your epic org*sms, why don’t you? Doing the right thing is the worst. I sigh, pulling down the skirt of my sundress and adjusting my umbrella. During the night it started to rain—my favorite kind, a light, spring rain, and I love how it makes the city look washed clean. Even the air smells fresh today, the flowers blooming in the park somehow rising over the exhaust fumes coming from the cars on Fifth Avenue. I’m waiting for a light to change when a guy sidles up beside me, surreptitiously looking me up and down. “Beautiful day,” he leers, leaning towards me. “Isn’t it?” “Yeah, it’s just peachy,” I say in a flat monotone, keeping my eyes on the light and willing it to change. “Great dress.” “Thanks,” I say, like I’d rather be doing my taxes or buffing my callouses. “You work around here?” he asks, clearly undeterred. “Maybe,” I say, not even bothering to disguise my irritation. “Not that it’s any of

your business.” He’s your basic business suit drone, holding a briefcase, his blond hair thinning on top. “Maybe we could get a drink sometime—or a cup of coffee,” he says brightly as the light changes. “Nope.” I quickly cross the street and walk up the stairs leading to the Met. Must be spring fever, I think, pushing through the revolving door. But then, after I’ve made my way through the lobby and just as I’m about to press the button for the elevator, another guy approaches, this one dressed in dark jeans and a crisp button down shirt, holding a tray of Starbucks. My mouth salivates at the sight of it. What I wouldn’t give for an Americano right now. I’d probably sell my sister into white slavery. Except as boring as her life is, she’d probably go willingly. “You’re Lizzie, right?” he asks in a friendly tone, but I’m immediately guarded and suspicious. Has he seen the video? Who am I kidding? I mean, at this point, who hasn’t seen it? I brace myself for whatever’s coming next. “Yes,” I say, jabbing the down button again. Why are elevators so slow these days? “I’m Brandon,” he says with a nervous smile. “I work over in Asian Arts?” “Oh yeah,” I exhale in relief, pretending to remember him. “How’s it going?” “Great!” he says with enthusiasm as the elevator arrives and we step inside. “I thought Asian Arts was upstairs?” I ask, confused as to why he’s descending to the basem*nt with me. “Umm.” He shifts uncomfortably, rearranging the tray he’s holding. “It is, but I just saw you and well. I was wondering if you wanted to go out sometime?” I blink. Twice in one morning? I mean, I know I’m not exactly hideous, but I’m definitely no Gisele either. Plus, I’m on strike for god’s sake! Don’t these guys know that asking me out is just futile? That they’re not going to get laid any time soon? “That’s very sweet,” I say as I walk out into the basem*nt. “But I don’t think so. It’s my policy not to mix business and pleasure, you know?” Right. Except if it involves drunkenly kissing Jake Weston up against the wall. Then I’m totally fine with it. “Oh, right,” he mutters, his cheeks reddening. “I just thought . . .” His voice trails off, and I will the doors to close because this is sheer agony, and finally they do. “Wait!” he says, putting one hand out to block them. Dammit. I was so close to getting out of there unscathed.

“Have a coffee,” he says, handing me a venti. “Americano, right?” “Umm, yeah,” I say, reaching out and grabbing it. “Thanks.” “Brandon,” he says firmly. “In Asian Arts. You know where to find me if you change your mind,” he grins as the door finally closes. Huh. Weird. I gulp the coffee and head to my office, but when I walk in the door, there’s the biggest bouquet of roses I’ve ever seen sitting on my desk—there must be at least three dozen flowers in there, stuffed into a crystal vase that’s bursting at the seams. Who died and sent the funeral arrangement to the wrong place? My pulse quickens despite myself. Could they be from Jake? But what would it matter anyway, even if they were, I tell myself. It would just be some empty romantic gesture designed to get me to break the strike so he could have his way with me. But would that really be so bad? I shake off the hormones and pluck out the card from the bouquet.

HEY LIZZIE, Hope these flowers brighten your day. I’d love to catch a drink sometime if you’re down! Barry (Renaissance Arts)

WHO THE HELL is Barry and why is he randomly sending me enough flowers to hold a small wedding in my office? This makes no sense—I start a sex strike and all of a sudden I’m every guy’s dream date? Either way, they’re sh*t out of luck. But I get to spend the day smelling like I’m in the middle of the country. Win-win! AFTER WORK, I head over to Della’s for our group stitch-and-bitch meeting. It’s tradition: the three of us with three bottles of wine and enough yarn to last all night. “So how are you holding up?” Melissa says from the couch as she wrestles with a ball of yellow wool. “Have you gone out of your mind with horniness yet?” Della laughs. “Yeah,” she says, nudging me in the ribs. “Did your vibrator give out yet?”

“Very funny,” I say, wishing we could talk about something, anything else. “I mean, it’s hard, but I wasn’t exactly having great sex to begin with, so it isn’t like I’m really missing anything,” Except hot make-out sessions with my co-worker. Yeah, those. God, why can’t I stop thinking about kissing him? About his gorgeous hands on my thighs, the way they slid down to my panties? It’s ridiculous. He’s ridiculous. But if that’s so, a little voice inside me pipes up, then why are you so attracted to him? “You’ve got your wool in my Syrah!” Della cackles like a needle-wielding Wicked Witch of the East, pulling a strand of soggy blue yarn out of her wine glass and tossing it at me. “Sorry!” I say, balling it up in my hand before unwinding another long piece from the ragged blue ball beside me. I’m supposedly knitting a pair of socks for my niece, but they look more like lopsided rectangles at this point. “I think it has a life of its own.” I’m starting to wonder if I should’ve tried something easier—like maybe a scarf? I mean, how hard it is to make a scarf, really? It’s probably a lot less difficult than these f*cking socks, I’ll tell you that much—but who cares? It’s not like we’re really here for the knitting. That’s not the point of a stitch-and-bitch, after all. I start on the next row, winding the wool over my needles, the brightly colored Moroccan rug underneath me scratching against my legs. All of Della and Zach’s furniture is beautiful but wildly uncomfortable. Their chairs are lumpy and old and every rug is made out of some kind of scratchy wool that gives me a rash. But I love it here. And Zach always stocks the kitchen with the best wine he gets free from reps trying to sell into the bar. “That reminds me,” Melissa adds. She opens up her purse and shoves what looks like a handful of magenta paper at me. “I brought you coupons for The Pink puss*cat, that way you can stock up!” I turn them over in my hands. “I’m fine,” I say emphatically, tossing the vouchers to the floor. “One vibrator is enough for anyone, and mine is doing just fine, thank you very much.” “Okay,” Melissa giggles, “but you never know! What if this little strike of yours goes on for three more weeks? Or even three months?” Dammit. I guess she does have a point. Kind of. “I say you can never be too prepared!” Della laughs. “On second thought, give me some of them.” “What do you mean?” Melissa asks. “I thought Zach couldn’t keep his hands to

himself.” “Not anymore. He’s decided to take up your strike, too.” “Whaaaaat?” Melissa drops her knitting into her lap. I look at Della, surprised. “Are you serious?” “Unfortunately.” Della scowls. “He says there’s no reason the strike should be just for women, and that men get taken for granted all the time, too. So now he says he won’t f*ck me until I shape up.” “Shape up?” Melissa asks, clearly confused. “I mean, what does he want?” “Who the f*ck knows?” Della drinks the rest of my wine. “I mean, I like to flirt a little when we go out, but it’s not serious. And yes, he does all the housework, and the cooking too, but he’s just better at it. I guess he feels like I take him for granted or something.” I wisely keep my mouth shut. I mean, maybe she does, just a little, but he always seemed like he was fine doing the heavy lifting in the relationship. Or any lifting, of any kind at all. It was just their dynamic, but I guess Zach wasn’t all that happy at all. “So now I’m stuck taking care of business while he stays out all night with his friends,” Della sighs. “I’m sorry,” I offer. “I never meant it to go this far. I mean, I never even meant to post that video in the first place—much less inspire anyone else to go on strike, too!” “I know.” She refills her wine glass. “I know you didn’t. But as they say, the damage is done.” “So what are you going to do?” Melissa asks. “I mean, would it kill you to try and be a little more romantic?” “Probably,” Della snaps, and even though she’s cranky I’m happy to see that spark come back into her eyes that I know so well. “But you could help me,” she says, fixing her gaze on me, “if you wanted to.” “Umm, what do you need me to do?” I say, turning my ball of yarn over in my hands. “Maybe talk to him? Tell him that the strike is a dumb idea? That maybe you went too far with the whole thing? It’s been a week so far and I think I’m losing my f*cking mind!” A week? Please. Talk to me when it’s been a month.

“I can try,” I say, but even to me, my voice sounds unsure. I mean, if Zach wants to go on strike, who am I to stop him? And how can I convince him that he should stop when I’m still doing it? Della just glares at me until I relent. “Okay,” I say, sighing loudly and pushing my knitting to the side. “I’ll try and talk to him. Will that make you happy?” “Very,” she says, smiling broadly now, reaching over to hug me, enveloping me in a cloud of the musky, patchouli-based perfume she always wears. So now I guess we’re good? But this also means that I have to, you know, actually talk to Zach, now that I said I would. On top of this, I have to convince him that going on strike is a terrible idea, even though I’m not sure it really is. I mean, Della does take him for granted a lot of the time. And also, there’s the simple fact that I have absolutely no idea what to say now that I’ve been so f*cking vocal on the subject of romance—or the lack of it—and the entire world knows what I think. Now I’m going to say it was all a mistake? Oh well, I think, draining my glass of wine. I’ll think of some way to make it work. Don’t I always?

15

LIZZIE

THE NEXT DAY, I’m down in my basem*nt lair, trying frantically to get things set up for the show, which is drawing closer every day that passes. The phone rings just as I’m cataloguing Audrey Hepburn’s gorgeous, full-skirted party dress from Sabrina, and I pull off the white gloves I’m wearing and race over to answer it, tripping over Bette Davis’ Oscar in the process, the one she scored for her catty, bitchy performance in All About Eve. “Hello?” I say, rubbing my shin, while glaring at the golden statue. Legend has it that they’re called Oscars because Davis claimed that the statue’s ass resembled that of her own husband, Oscar. It’s probably not true but I like the story anyway, and you can bet your own ass that it’s going in the show. “Hello,” a deep, smooth male voice answers. “I’m returning a call from Lizzie Ryan. This is Dylan Mandeville.” Yes! I fist pump the air and catch my breath. I’ve been trying to get a hold of Dylan for weeks now. His grandfather, Clark Mandeville, was one of the most prolific directors of classic rom-com’s, and directed that movie Bring Me the Stars that I was telling Jake about. I’ve been calling his office in Hollywood every day for the past two weeks, but until now, I’ve only gotten radio silence. Dylan is an up-andcoming director, which probably explains why he’s had zero time for the likes of me. Until now! “Thanks for getting back to me,” I manage to say, sounding professional. “I’m interested in talking about your grandfather’s work . . .” “It sounds great,” he says after I fill him in on the show and my plans for his grandfather’s place in the exhibition. “But why don’t we discuss it in person? I’m in New York on business right now. I don’t have much time, but I can drop by in about an hour.” “Perfect,” I exclaim. “I can’t wait.”

AN HOUR LATER, I’m sitting across the conference table from the hottest guy I’ve seen since, well, since Jake Weston walked into my life. But unlike Jake, this guy doesn’t come buried under the weight of a decade of bitterness and cynicism. Score! My tongue is pretty much hanging out of my mouth like a dog salivating over a juicy bone. He’s exactly my type—dark, handsome, and in his thirties, and dressed very Hollywood-meets-New York in a pair of grey pants and a crisp white button down with the sleeves rolled up. On his feet are beat-up leather loafers with no socks, and he has the most brilliantly white smile I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s the strike, maybe it’s my raging hormones, but just looking at him, I’m instantly turned on. But I digress. “Great to meet you in person,” I say, adjusting my glasses on my nose and giving him a big smile, hoping I’m not gushing too much already. “You too,” he answers with a smile of his own. “When you talked about all that classic Hollywood stuff, I was picturing someone a lot older. And far less beautiful.” Wow. He even has a dimple, a deep one on his left cheek—right near his impossibly full lips. Sigh. “What’s it like growing up as Hollywood royalty?” I ask before I can stop myself. God, I’m so nosy sometimes. Not to mention gossipy. Still, Dylan doesn’t seem to mind. “Not everything it’s cracked up to be,” he says with a rueful grin. “Hollywood’s a pretty fake place, you know? It’s not unfiltered like New York. No one tells you what they really think. Take this conversation, for instance, the question you just asked me? It would never happen in LA. Not in a million years.” “Sorry,” I say, cringing a little. “Don’t be,” he smiles. “I can’t tell you how refreshing it is.” His eyes crinkle at the edges. Did I mention, wow? “I’m thinking of relocating, actually.” Dylan leans back in his seat. “Maybe directing some theater. The movie business can be so shallow. I’m all about telling authentic stories, you know what I mean?” “Mmmm.” I nod. Gorgeous and thoughtful, too. Be still my heart! “Plus, it’s hard to meet women out there,” he adds. “At least, a woman of substance.” He smiles, fixing me with a soulful stare that I feel all the way to my toes. Yup. It’s my toes I’m feeling. For sure.

“I know you don’t have long to talk, so should we get started about the show?” I open my laptop, trying to get down to business when all I can really think about is throwing this guy across the desk and having my way with him—maybe more than once, actually. Stop it, I tell myself, crossing my legs and trying to appear normal. You’re on strike! “Sure,” he says. “But I’d really rather hear more about you.” “Me?” I say in surprise, looking at him over the tops of my glasses. “What about me?” “Well, I don’t know yet,” he laughs. “Why don’t we start at the beginning? Or, better, yet, why don’t I take you to dinner tonight so we can discuss you in detail?” He’s coming on a bit strong, but maybe that’s just how they do it in LA. Still, my Spidey-sense is tingling at his charming lines, and I’m about to quiz him a little more when the door swings open and Jake walks in. “Don’t you ever knock?” I ask. “The museum has an open-door policy.” He stares at Dylan curiously, like he’s a space ship that’s just landed in my office. “Well, as you can see, I’m kind of busy right now.” I blush. OK, so maybe drooling over one guy just days after making out with the other isn’t exactly normal Lizzie behavior, but what am I supposed to do? A handsome stranger just appeared in my office to flirt. You don’t look a gift hottie in the mouth! “Clearly. I wanted to talk with you about the World War II section of the show.” Jake finally looks over at me. “But I can come back later. I’m Jake Weston,” he says, holding out his hand to Dylan. Dylan gives him a wide smile, standing up and shaking Jake’s hand firmly. I really like a man with a firm grip. Have I mentioned that already? Probably. “Dylan Mandeville. And you’re not interrupting at all—I’m just trying to convince Lizzie here to have dinner with me tonight.” “Dinner?” Jake raises an eyebrow. “I would think Lizzie’s far too busy with planning the show.” “What are you, anyway? My social director?” I turn back to Dylan with an exasperated smile. “I’d love to have dinner with you, Dylan,” I say sweetly, mentally warning Jake to not even think of screwing this up for me. “Great!” Dylan says warmly. We’re practically beaming at one another and Jake is shifting his weight from one foot to the other, clearly uncomfortable. “I’ll let you get back to work. I’ll call you later,” he says before walking to the door and closing

it behind him. “What do you think you’re doing?” I hiss at Jake, the moment he’s gone. “Just looking out for you,” he answers with a weird look. “I don’t need you to look out for me!” “Fine,” he says, walking to the door. “But it’s a mistake.” “What? You leaving? I don’t think so.” “No,” he says, his hand on the doorknob. “Your date with Mr. Hollywood. Those LA guys are bigger players than I am. He just wants to get in your pants. Did he mention the strike?” “Nope,” I say, relishing the word on my tongue. “He’s been travelling for work. He probably hasn’t even heard of it.” “Bullsh*t, he’s just playing it cool. No way he doesn’t know. Surprised he hasn’t tried to buy the film rights to your story yet,” he adds. My heart sinks. What if he’s right? I thought Dylan might be a blank slate when it comes to my viral humiliation. “So what if he does?” I rally. “If he knows he’s not getting laid, then maybe it makes his dinner invitation even more promising. He said it himself, he’s looking for authenticity, a woman of substance. Not everyone is looking to fall into bed at the drop of a hat.” Jake smirks. “I never said that. Some of us like it up against the wall.” He winks and closes the door behind him, before I can throw a pen at his head. My phone vibrates with a text. Dylan. “Meet me at the top of the Empire State Building. 8 PM.” I beam . . . Now here’s a guy who understands romance! And what could be more romantic than meeting at the Empire State Building, the setting for classic films like Sleepless in Seattle and An Affair to Remember, not to mention the location of countless first kisses and romantic proposals of all kinds? I’m finally about to find out. Hell, I don’t need a grand gesture—just as long as Dylan doesn’t show up in sweatpants with a 40 of beer in a brown paper bag, he’ll have most of my dating prospects beat. Bring it on.

16

LIZZIE

WHEN I GET off the subway, the Empire State Building is glittering in the darkness. I know it’s a cliché, but every time I see it, lit up in the night sky, I remember exactly why I moved to New York in the first place. My stomach is full of butterflies as I walk through the revolving glass door to the elevator that races up, up, and up without stopping, so fast that my head spins. When I step out onto the observation deck, it’s crowded with people, and I look around, craning my neck past the throngs of tourists looking out over the city lights. Then I see Dylan, stepping out of the crowd with a bouquet of roses in his hands. Sure, it’s a little cliché, but the classics last for a reason. I smile and greet him there right in the middle of the deck. “You know how to sweep a girl off her feet,” I tease, clutching the bouquet to my chest and breathing in the sweet scent. “I try.” He smiles, and I notice that he’s dressed as nicely as he was this afternoon, if not more so, since he’s pulled a dark grey sweater over his dress shirt and switched the loafers for shiny black shoes. “You’re an absolute vision,” he says, and grabs my hand. Then he twirls me around like we’re on a dance floor, so fast I almost stumble. When the world stops spinning, I see people are watching; one couple even starts clapping loudly. I flush. “People are looking,” I whisper, feeling self-conscious. “Probably staring at how beautiful you are.” OK, that line is just . . . cheesy. Mega-cheese. Stinky brie levels of cheesiness, and any other time I would be rolling my eyes, but somehow, Dylan is looking at me so sincerely, he almost pulls it off. “Let’s check out the view.” He takes me by the arm and leads me over to the railing. “It’s the only thing that’s maybe more stunning than you right now.” This guy is like a walking Hallmark card. But before I can protest, he directs me to

the corner edge of the platform where the city is spread out before us like a twinkling diamond necklace. I sigh happily. “I love this view.” “Me too.” When I look up, he’s ignoring everything except me, staring so deeply into my eyes that I’m wondering if I smeared red lipstick on my face or something. I reach up and rub my cheek just in case. “So, tell me more about Hollywood,” I say, trying to lighten the mood. “Making movies sounds so exciting! I’ve always wondered what it’s like.” He waves away my question with one hand as if it’s a fly buzzing around his face. “Let’s not talk business tonight.” He moves in closer, resting one hand on my arm. “I meant what I said this afternoon—I want to hear more about you: your hopes, your dreams, your thoughts about the future. Who is Lizzie Ryan? What does she feel?” I cough lightly, trying to stifle a giggle. Oh my god. Is he for real? Sure, I wanted a guy who was into me, who would pay me more attention than the nearest sports game, but this is all way too much. It’s so . . . scripted. “I don’t know where to start . . .” I say slowly. “I mean, I grew up in Toledo. Go Buckeyes! I have one sister, and my parents divorced when I was a kid . . .” I pause, looking around. “It’s kind of cold up here. Do we have reservations we need to get to . . . ?” “What do you say we skip dinner and just take this night to the next level?” Dylan leans closer, so he’s practically purring in my ear. “I can think of better way to satisfy our . . . appetites.” His hand suddenly slides down to cup my ass, and squeeze it, too, for good measure. My eyes widen so much that I’m surprised they don’t pop out of my head. So much for romance. I’m tempted to deliver a swift knee to his groin to show him just how my appetite is working, but at the last second, I remember: I need this guy for the exhibition. Dammit! I’m going to have to wriggle out of this one without getting arrested for assault. “Umm, thanks,” I say, backing out of his vise-like grip. “But I’m suddenly . . . not feeling so well. I think I better take a rain check.” “Then maybe I should take you home,” he says, his face full of faux concern. “Tuck you into bed?” He winks suggestively, and it’s still so damn cheesy I can’t help it this time: a laugh escapes my lips and I have to fake a coughing fit to cover it up, slapping one hand over my mouth.

“Uh, I don’t think so,” I say when I manage to straighten up, wiping the tears from my eyes and hoping that my mascara isn’t smeared all over my face. “I’m really not feeling well and I think I just need to go home and . . . rest.” “This strike of yours can’t last forever, you know,” he says, an edge of irritation creeping into his voice. I freeze. So he does know about the strike—along with everyone else on the planet, it seems. So that’s all this was? Finally a guy sweeps me off my feet, but for entirely the wrong reason. God forbid I should actually have a date with someone that wants to go out with me, oh, I don’t know . . . because he actually likes me or something! “We’ll see about that,” I say calmly, putting distance between us before I really do some damage. “But right now, going home alone seems like a great plan to me!” ONCE I’M BACK OUT on the street, I toss the flowers in the nearest trashcan. I know Dylan’s an ass, and I should have seen through him from the start, but I was so dazzled by all his talk about finding something real I didn’t stop to ask myself why he was coming on so strong. Sure, romantic gestures and pretty flowers are nice, but they’re not the point of all of this. It’s no good going on amazing dates if the guy at the other side of the table STILL only wants one thing. f*ck, it looks like this strike is having the exact opposite effect of the one I wanted: instead of clearing the decks of guys just looking to get laid, I’m attracting the ones who see me as some kind of conquest now. Like Jake? I try not to think about him, but boy, is it hard. Somehow all our animosity is producing the craziest sexual tension. The more co*cky and irritating he gets, the more I want him back down between my thighs, finishing what he started on New Year’s Eve. Because as far as I can recall, that sh*t was amazing . . . . . . Up until the minute he passed out. Right. That. I sigh and shake it off. It’s a gorgeous night, the warm wind blowing gently through the streets, with people out enjoying drinks and dinner. I realize I’m just a few blocks from my favorite classic movie theater, so instead of writing off the night entirely, I stroll over to it to see if there’s anything that can distract me from the mess of my love life. My heart leaps in my chest when I see a Die Hard marathon advertised on the marquee! I mean, there’s really nothing that two hours immersed in intense action scenes with a shirtless, sweaty Bruce Willis can’t cure, as far as I’m concerned. What I need is a big tub of popcorn and an even bigger dose of

fantasy to take me out of this mood. I walk determinedly into the brightly lit lobby, the delicious buttery scent of popcorn filling my nose, and I buy a ticket, walking toward the concession stand. Usually I bring brownies for Brad, the projectionist, but I’m empty-handed tonight, so I get in line for snacks. There’s a guy in a suit in front of me, buying a tub of popcorn bigger than my skull, and there’s something about the way he stands that looks so familiar . . . When he turns around, I find myself looking into the eyes of Jake Weston, who, against all odds, is smiling like he’s actually glad to see me. Smiling, and smoking hot, and bearing popcorn. Oh. f*ck. Forget Bruce Willis—I may just get a lot more action tonight then I bargained for.

17

LIZZIE

“OF ALL THE theaters in all of the world, she walks into mine,” he deadpans, holding the gigantic tub of popcorn close to his chest. The aroma of butter and salt is so intoxicating that I can barely restrain myself from reaching out and taking a handful. That’s what I get for skipping dinner. “It’s not your theater, though,” I point out, and then curse myself for snapping. Something about this man makes my hackles rise—and my heart rate, too. “Your date extra hungry tonight?” I ask, gesturing to his snacks. “I mean, I’m surprised to see you’re dating a woman who actually eats. It’s so revolutionary of you, Jake.” “I’m full of surprises,” he says, smiling. “And I actually don’t have a date tonight. For once.” “I’m in shock,” I say, deadpan. “I guess the women of New York have more sense than I gave them credit for.” “Not as far as I’m concerned.” Jake gives me a look. “I made it halfway through my little black book before giving up. Someone’s been giving them ideas about romance and courtship.” “Ha!” I laugh. “Serves you right. Don’t worry,” I add, grinning. “You’ll get used to it. Who knows, you might even learn a thing or two.” “Believe me, I know everything I need to about women,” he says, sounding way too confident. “Give it another couple of weeks, and you’ll all be begging for us again. A little something called hormones,” he adds. I smirk and reach over to steal a handful of popcorn. “I prefer a little something called Lelo,” I reply, naming my trusted vibrator brand. “It charges for eight hours and doesn’t fart in the middle of the night.”

Jake leans closer, still with that irresistible smirk on his face. Irritating. I mean irritating. “Sure, a vibrator can try to replace a dick,” he says casually, his voice low. “But what about hands . . . and fingers . . . and mouths . . . ?” His eyes flash, full of suggestion, and despite myself, I get hot. Because damn, he’s right. There’s nothing like the feel of a hard, masculine body pressing up against me, and someone’s lips driving me crazy, and— “The movie’s starting.” I drag my gaze away, certain my cheeks are fire-engine red right now. “Coming?” I regret my word choice right away, because I hear him chuckling as he follows me into the theater. “Soon enough,” Jake says, and I try not to think about what that would be like. It’s even worse once we get settled in our seats: sitting side by side in the dark. The screening’s half-full, but still, it feels like we’re totally alone in front of the flickering screen. I fidget in my seat—why are these things always so damned uncomfortable—and when my hand brushes his on the armrest, I pull it away as if I’ve been burned, mumbling a “sorry” that he doesn’t return. “I hope you know you’re sharing this,” I say, as I grab a handful of his popcorn and shoving it in my mouth. A girl’s got to eat, right? Besides, he has a history of stealing my drinks, so turnabouts fair play. Or something. “I had a feeling,” he says dryly as he grabs a handful of his own and we chew in silence. Well, I mean, it’s not like the chewing is silent—it’s noisy as hell, like we’re crunching on blocks of Styrofoam. The trailers roll, but I feel Jake’s eyes on me. I turn. “What?” “Nothing.” He grins. “Just wondering what happened to Mr. Hollywood? Did he stand you up?” “Nope,” I reply. “He met me at the top of the Empire State Building, if you must know. He even showed up with flowers!” “Then what are you doing here?” I sigh. “Turns out, he just wanted to f*ck me.” Jake laughs. “Gee, thanks for the sympathy.” “I’m not gonna say I told you so.”

“Then don’t,” I snap. The lights go down, and the movie starts, but I can’t focus on the screen. I can’t help thinking that the last time we were this close, we were kissing back at my apartment, and suddenly, I’ve got an X-rated instant replay running in my mind. Plus, he’s wearing some kind of citrusy cologne that makes me think of near-naked beach vacations, which is making it nearly impossible for me to keep my mind on Bruce Willis and his impressive biceps. Chill out, sex maniac, I tell myself, trying to ignore the warmth of Jake’s body next to mine. But it’s no use. As hard as I try and as badly as I need to, I can’t seem to disappear into the world on screen the way I usually do. Everything about his presence is a massive distraction . . . and I already know what a massive distraction he’s got in store. Thin cotton pants don’t hide a thing. AFTER THE LIGHTS COME UP, I’m pretty sure I’m still blushing from all the fantasies I’ve been entertaining, but Jake seems relaxed and totally nonchalant. We head outside and pause on the sidewalk. “We could get a drink,” Jake suggests casually. “Unless you need to get back.” “Sure,” I agree. “I know a place nearby.” Jake nods south, and we start walking. One of the things I love about this city is traipsing around it at night when it’s all quiet, staring into the shop windows and ducking into all-night diners for pie and coffee when I get hungry. The early spring air smells like blossoms, and I close my eyes for a second and take a deep breath. “I love spring,” I say. “I love that moment where it seems like the whole city bursts into bloom and everything smells so clean.” “Right.” Jake grins. “And you probably love kitties and puppies and rainbows, and look! There’s a unicorn!” He points off to a dark alleyway, and I roll my eyes at him, even though he isn’t looking at me. “I forgot, Mr. Cynicism. At least you have to admit that was a great movie, though,” I say. “I watch it every year. Nothing gets me in the Christmas spirit like watching Bruce Willis get subjected to immense amounts of pain. I mean, the man walks on broken glass and barely flinches!” “Kind of reminds me of Christmas at my mom’s house,” he snorts. “Minus the explosions.” “That bad?” I ask. “It’s not like my house was a Normal Rockwell painting either—

before they finally split, my parents fought 24/7,” I sigh. “And when they weren’t fighting, they basically just ignored each other. They would actually spend meals sending messages to each other through my sister and I. Like ‘Lizzie, please tell your father to pass the butter.’ It was totally bizarre, now that I think about it.” I shrug, even though the memory stings a little. “I guess that’s when I got into classic movies, it was kind of reassuring to see that people actually loved each other and not all marriages were doomed to fail.” “I guess I grew up mistrusting everything about that kind of stuff,” Jake says thoughtfully. “My mom was so insecure, even though she was a knockout—as gorgeous as any film star. But my dad was a real ladies’ man—always out on the town or stuck in ‘business meetings’ that lasted until dawn. Anyway, she always thought she was one step away from losing him, so to pacify her, he bought her gifts—huge bouquets of flowers, jewelry, cars, designer clothing and furs—you name it. But none of it helped. I mean, a diamond necklace wasn’t enough to make up for what she wasn’t getting from him—his time, his attention. How could it? It was an expensive substitute that felt cheap because she expected so much more.” “So what happened with them?” I ask. He shrugs. “Eventually, she got sick of his running around, and they split. He remarried a bunch of times, but nothing stuck. I got my stepsister, Ruby, from his second wife—we get along great—and a half brother from his third, who’s Satan’s devil spawn.” “Which one—the wife or the brother?” I laugh. “Both.” Jake grins. “Now he’s engaged to some Polish model he met last year. It’s a disaster in waiting, but what can you do?” I turn to look at him, his profile chiseled against the night sky. For the first time, I realize that all his anti-romance, no-commitment bullsh*t actually comes from somewhere real. It makes perfect sense—anyone who grew up the way he did would be the same way—thinking they were a series of meaningless gestures, a trap. Which means he’s a total train wreck for women—not that it’s his fault or anything. But still. He’s the hottest train wreck I’ve ever seen, and now on top of it, he’s probably not the jerk he makes himself out to be . . . I feel a pang of sympathy for him, closely followed by a wave of desire. “Listen to me.” He shrugs self-consciously. “This is the kind of sh*t I should be telling a therapist, not you.” “It’s OK.” I shrug. “I mean, you’ve heard most of my deepest romantic secrets by now. You and fourteen million people.”

He laughs. “Guess so.” We stop on the next corner, waiting to cross, and he places his hand lightly on the small of my back. It’s the smallest gesture, barely anything at all, but I have to fight the urge to lean in. To reach up and pull him to me, kiss him right here on this deserted street corner until I can’t think anymore, then fall in a cab to his apartment and pick up right where we left off the other night: with his co*ck hard in my hands and his fingers sliding towards the bullseye of my damp puss*— I shake my head, as if waking from a bad dream. There’s no f*cking way I can have a drink with him now—which will lead to two, and maybe even three, and before you know it, I’ll be in his bed. Would that really be so bad, that annoying little voice inside me asks as I look at him nervously. Yes, I answer back, as firmly as I can muster considering that my thighs are practically on fire. Yes it would. “You know what? It’s late, and I have to be up early,” I say, stepping out onto the street and raising my hand for a cab. Miraculously, one turns the corner and stops right in front of me, just like I’ve planned it. “Raincheck on the drink?” “Sure,” he says briskly, all business now as I open the door and climb in. “This was fun,” I say before closing the door. He opens his mouth to answer, but the car pulls away from the curb. All the same, and even if he doesn’t agree, I know it’s the truth. It was fun. And that’s the problem. I can’t be having fun with Jake Weston. Of any sort. WHEN I GET HOME, I’m still restless, still thinking about his hand brushing against mine in the darkness of the theater, the lemon-and-salt scent of his cologne. I go into my room and pull out my Hitachi Magic Wand. I’ve always been a little gunshy of toys that plug directly into a wall—somehow electricity + my vagin* has never seemed like the best equation, but I’m so turned on that I throw caution to the wind and sprawl out on the bed, the wand between my legs. I hike my skirt up over my hips and switch on the toy, pushing the head against my puss*, a low moan escaping my throat. God, it feels so f*cking good I can barely stand it. I haven’t come in weeks, and I’m soaking wet, my panties sticking to my puss*, my breath coming ragged and fast. I pause for a minute to get my underwear out of the way before closing my thighs around the wand, my head rolling back and forth on the pillow as I think about

Jake, his long fingers and strong hands. The way his mouth felt on mine as he reached down and found my cl*t, his fingers making slow, deliberate circles in my wetness, his breath hot on my neck . . . I’m panting now, and I turn the toy up to its highest setting. I reach up into my bra to squeeze my nipple, the sensation sending me right over the edge. I come with my head hanging off the bed, moaning uncontrollably, spasms wracking my body. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—who really needs men when there’s such a thing as a Magic Wand? When I come back down, I’m still breathing hard. I pull off my dress and crawl under the covers, drifting off into the first relaxed sleep in months. For the first time in forever, I’m not thinking about Jake or the strike—I just drift into the land of dreamless oblivion, my body like Jello, hugging a pillow to my chest.

18

JAKE

I SHOULDN’T BE SO happy that Dylan struck out with Lizzie, but for some reason, I am. My life would be a whole lot easier if she would just break this damn strike, but still, I don’t want her doing it with a Hollywood fake douchenozzle like that. I stop by the Dapper offices to make use of Miles’ rolodex, but surprise surprise, there’s only one thing he wants to talk about. “It shouldn’t be this hard!” Miles exclaims, slumping into his desk chair, which is made of chrome and leather and probably costs as much as a small, imported car. “She’s hot enough to get a guy. I mean, it’s not like we’re talking Loch Ness Monster here.” I feel myself tense. Hot enough? f*ck, Lizzie is practically smoking even in those librarian outfits she insists on wearing. But I’m not about to admit I get a raging hard-on even thinking about those curves. “She’s stubborn,” I say instead. “This is what happens when you build something up. I bet she can’t bring herself to admit she’s wrong now, with everyone making such a big deal.” “You’d think fifty Gs would convince someone to play along,” Miles sighs, and I wince. I can’t believe he went through with it, but apparently, Miles’ dick is in the driving seat these days. It’s right there in a secret forum on the Dapper website: fifty thousand dollars to whoever can get Lizzie to break the strike. It’s no wonder her office is like a f*cking Hallmark factory these days. I only hope she doesn’t figure it out, since I’m guessing she won’t be flattered by the attention so much as furious spitting mad. “Dude. I’ve said as much from the beginning—a bounty is a stupid idea. I know you’re getting blue balls over here, but this girl’s a person, not a piece of meat.” “Since when do you have such high moral standards?” Miles glares. It’s a fair question, but I don’t think I want to answer it. Not yet, anyway. I keep thinking about walking around with her the other night after the movie, the way she looked up at me just before she hightailed it into that cab, her eyes so big and blue behind her glasses, almost like she wanted me to kiss her again. f*ck, I

wanted to. It took everything I had not to bend down and pull her into my arms, show her exactly what a real man can do, strike be damned. But f*ck that. I need to stay away from her, and for good this time. She’s business —not pleasure. And there’s no way I’m mixing the two up more than I already have. I’ve already gotten way too involved in this entire mess as it is. “Jesus, Tat just emailed and says she’s getting a bikini wax today!” Miles whines, slamming his laptop shut. “A bikini wax, Jake!” He puts his head into his hands. “Why keep living?” he moans, his voice muffled. “She can’t keep this up forever,” I tell him, feeling more unsure of my own words by the minute. I have to hand it to Tatiana—she’s got serious game. I think I may have underestimated her, actually. Forget about the cold shoulder, this is the cold war. “Wanna bet?” he asks, raising his head. “Ask me how many times I’ve beat off this week? Just ask me.” “I don’t want to know, Miles,” I laugh, walking toward the door. “But I have to get to work—the show’s coming up soon and we’re behind. Take the bounty down— it’s stupid. Tat will lose interest soon—just hang in there and try and be patient. Why don’t you cut off her credit cards until she ponies it up? That should teach her a lesson. No puss*, no Gucci.” I’m not really serious, but it is pretty funny to imagine Tat getting denied at Barney’s with an armful of lingerie. She’d get indignant, lose her f*cking mind, and the salesgirl wouldn’t know what hit her. “Yeah, that’s a great idea, Jake. She’d probably cut my balls off, much less throw me a bone. You’re full of terrible ideas, you know that?” “So I’ve been told,” I smile, “but look who’s talking?” I open the door and get the hell out of there before he starts humping his very expensive Italian leather sofa. I HEAD over to the museum, stopping to pick up a couple of coffees from Starbucks on my way. If I know Lizzie—and I do by now—then she’s hitting her midafternoon crash right now, and it won’t be pretty unless I can smooth the troubled waters with a venti vanilla latte. I’m just heading down to her office when Morgan comes barreling down the hall towards me, her hair pulled back extra-tight today, a determined look on her face. “Jake Weston!” she exclaims, taking me by the arm and pulling me into the conference room. “Just the man I wanted to see.” She closes the door and walks over to the conference table, perching on top of it like she’s some kind of nervous, exotic bird about to fly away.

“What can I do for you, Morgan?” I ask, hoping she doesn’t want me to attend some godawful co*cktail party like I did last week, to try to convince donors to be more generous in their gifts to the museum. I hate schmoozing. “I just got off the phone with Max Danforth’s lawyers, and they’ve agreed for you to visit this Saturday! You’ll meet with him that afternoon, and you’ll have access to the house, the grounds, all the memorabilia—everything!” Holy sh*t. Lizzie and I have been playing phone tag with Danforth’s people for weeks now, and I, for one, had just about given up on making a trip happen. Which would’ve been a shame, considering that Danforth is currently in possession of one of the biggest collections of old Hollywood memorabilia in the country. But, then again, this guy could afford to collect on a grand scale, seeing that he was one of the most successful producers in Hollywood history—with a humungous estate in Bel Air to match. “Has he agreed to loan out the pieces we need for the show?” I ask, already thinking of the treasures that could be back at the estate. Never mind Lizzie’s movie stuff, I have clients that would kill for some original mid-century furniture. “Well . . .” Morgan’s voice trails off. “He hasn’t agreed exactly, but I know that with your charm, Jake, you’ll have no problem convincing him!” Which means he’s said no flat out, and Morgan’s sending me anyway. “Normally, I would represent the museum in these matters, but I’m just so busy here planning for the big gala.” That’s right, I almost forgot. Once Morgan got wind that Lizzie’s exhibit might actually be a success, she decided to swoop in and upgrade the big opening to a massive fancy gala event. Goodbye, two lines in the NYT arts section, hello society event with catering, black-tie dress code, and sixteen-piece swing band. I’m pleased for Lizzie, it’s a big deal, but it means the pressure’s really on us now to pull this off. “You and Lizzie will go this weekend,” Morgan continues. “I’m relying on you to make this happen,” she adds with a steely glare. “Don’t let me down.” “Of course,” I mutter, with a sinking feeling in my gut. I wander back out into the hallway and take a sip of now-cold coffee. A weekend. In a hotel. With Lizzie. This isn’t exactly in line with my resolve to stay away from her. In fact, this f*cks things up royally. But whatever. I’m a professional, right? I can make this work. She’s a colleague—nothing more. A f*cking hot colleague that infuriates you on a daily basis, yes, but she’s a colleague nonetheless. If you can do that, this trip should be a piece of cake, right? And it’s only a weekend—two days, three, tops. I can do anything for a weekend—

and that includes staying as far away from Lizzie Ryan as humanly possible. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Just then Lizzie walks past wearing one of those tight little sundresses she favors that flares out at the hips and somehow simultaneously manages to hug every one of her curves. f*cking hell. When she sees me, her face breaks into a tentative smile before she realizes what she’s done and completely erases it. She stomps over to the espresso machine and begins noisily grinding some beans. “Heard the news yet about LA?” I ask, yelling so she can hear me over the cacophony. “Yep,” she says, not even turning around to look at me. “Morgan told me this morning.” “Pretty exciting,” I say, wondering why she’s not bouncing off the walls with glee. “I’m sure it’ll be a great opportunity for the show, yes,” she says in a robotic tone of voice. “Wow, I thought you’d be going apesh*t over the chance to plunder this guy’s estate.” “Danforth’s a legend,” she says. “So of course I’m excited. And it’s not plundering, it’s borrowing!” Was it something I said? Just for that, I don’t tell her about the latte sitting on the counter with her name on it. “I’ll meet you at the airport then,” I say, walking towards the door. I don’t know what happened between the movie and today, but she’s acting like I’m invisible. She doesn’t even say a word as I exit, just focuses on that coffee maker like it holds the secrets of the known universe. Jesus, she runs hot and cold so often, you’d think we were dating. I stop. f*ck. That’s not the way to think . . . because if we were dating, I wouldn’t let her off so easy. No, I’d push her up against the table and show her exactly why she can’t ignore me for long. Shove that skirt up, and find out if her panties were already wet for me— Professional. Sure, Jake. I storm down the hallway, needing some air, but I bump right into Liam, some tool from the HR department. As soon as he sees me, his face lights up like it’s Christmas. “Dude,” he says, leaning in closer, “did I see Lizzie heading back there?” “Last time I checked,” I growl. “You take a crack at that yet?” he asks. “I mean, fifty K is a lot of spare change, you

know?” Him too? f*ck, I’m going to need to hire Lizzie bodyguards at this rate, to chase off all the assholes looking to make a quick buck at her expense. “Why don’t you just leave her alone?” I snap. “I mean she’s not a f*cking cashiers check, she’s a human being.” Liam gives me a knowing look. “f*ck you, man, you just want it all for yourself.” “No.” I’m seriously close to doing this kid damage but he just gives me a conspiratorial look, like we’re in this together. “Hey, all’s fair in love and war.” He smooths down his thinning blond hair. “She smiled at me in the elevator yesterday so I think she’s into it. Wish me luck.” He leaves before I can give him something else—with my fists. Dammit, why the f*ck do these chumps think they stand a chance? Lizzie will see through them in five seconds flat. But something makes me backtrack down the hall until I can spy through the glass of the break room. I watch as Liam sidles up to Lizzie and turns on the charm. Don’t fall for it, I will her, and sure enough, she rolls her eyes. Liam doesn’t take a hint. He moves in closer, pinning her in against the counters. Lizzie scowls as he keeps talking, and I can practically see the steam start to come from her ears. I’m just about to go in there and pull him the hell away, when she jostles him, and somehow manages to spill her cup of hot coffee all down the front of his shirt. Ha! Liam leaps back, cursing and dabbing at his shirt, but Lizzie just grins and sashays away. I relax. I should’ve known she can take care of herself. But why do I care? We’re not dating. In fact, we’re not anything at all. And I need to keep it that way, I remind myself, even if it kills me. Which it damn well just might.

19

LIZZIE

OKAY, I tell myself, pacing back and forth at the boarding gate, ready to fly to LA. I can totally do this. It’s just a business trip! A business trip with a hot guy I totally want to screw senseless, but these are just details, right? I mean, what better time to practice self-control or mindfulness or whatever the hell they were talking about in that yoga seminar Della dragged me to last week. Except all I could think about that whole yoga session was a thick slice of gooey tres leches cake, and now is no different; except instead of wanting to lick up every last drop of sugary goodness, I want to lick— Well. Yeah. That. My pulse is racing like I’ve just run a 5K, and I take another sip of my coffee, praying I’ve remembered to pack my Xanax. I’m not a great flier, to put it mildly. Planes terrify me, and without a knock-out dose of tranquilizers or a few very stiff drinks, I’m libel to slip into full on panic-attack mode, the minute the wheels leave the ground. Which would be highly embarrassing in front of a certain co*cky, arrogant someone. Wait. Did I pack my Xanax? I’m rummaging frantically through my bag when Jake arrives, looking predictably perfect in a pair of black pants and a light cashmere sweater that was probably made from some almost-extinct strain of sheep raised in the Scottish highlands. “Are they boarding yet?” he asks in lieu of actually, you know, greeting me. And I shake my head no and keep tearing through my purse, hoping against hope that the orange plastic bottle will somehow miraculously appear. “Not yet. Any minute though.” “Rough day?” he asks, watching as I finally give up and shut my bag, flinging it over my shoulder. “Not at all,” I say, trying for a breezy tone of voice.

“Right,” he says, clearly not buying it. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I could use a drink,” he says, craning his neck to presumably look for the bar . . . just as they start boarding our flight. “sh*t,” I mutter under my breath. No Xanax, no booze . . . this is going to get ugly. “Guess we’re out of luck,” he says, hoisting up his black leather duffel bag and getting in line. My stomach sinks as I walk down the narrow hallway and onto the plane, dragging my red rollaway suitcase behind me. I take a deep breath as I find our seats and after storing my bag in the compartment above, I slide into the one closest to the window. I just hope the flight is smooth—if there’s anything I hate more than flying, it’s turbulence. As I settle into my seat, it dawns on me—I’m going to be inches away from Jake Weston for the entire flight, which, while it actually may take my mind off of my impending death, also makes our two hours spent in a movie theater in close proximity seem like a joke. He slides in beside me. “Fasten your seatbelt,” he says, turning to me with a wicked grin, “it’s going to be a bumpy night.” “If that’s your best Bette Davis impression then the next six hours are doomed,” I say, pulling down the window shade, hoping to block out as much of the outside world as possible. “Don’t you want to watch us take off?” Jake asks, reaching over and flipping the window shade back up. “It’s the best part!” “Only if you’re clinically insane,” I shoot back, grabbing the window shade and pulling it down again. “Besides, my seat, my shade. So keep your mitts off it, okay?” “Touchy, touchy,” he mutters. “Are you going to be like this the entire flight?” “That depends.” I close my eyes and say a prayer. “Is it too late to get off?” Jake smirks. “It’s never too late for that, baby.” I hit his arm, just as the stewardess comes around. “Excuse me?” I lean over. “Is there any way I could get a couple of those tiny bottles of vodka before takeoff?” She looks at me like I’m crazy. “We don’t serve alcohol until we’re in the air.” “Sorry about my friend,” Jake interjects. “She’s got a problem,” he adds in a hushed voice. “Real sad. We’re trying to get her help but—Oww!” I hit him again. “I don’t have a problem,” I tell the stewardess as she gives me a scared look and moves off. “Really, I don’t!” Jake chuckles. “Why did you do that?” I moan, my one shot at oblivion

disappearing down the aisle. “C’mon, is sitting with me really that bad?” “Yup.” I pull on an eye mask and plug in my earbuds. I could be sitting next to Brad Pitt himself and I’d still need a drink. This is going to be one hell of a long flight. FORTY-FIVE MINUTES later I’m gripping the armrest as the plane dips and drops in the sky so hard that my stomach turns over like we’re on a carnival ride—one with a bonus thrill of crashing into the ocean at 300 miles per hour. So far I’m having a super great time on this trip. On top of this, I’m trying to hide my panic from Jake, who is reading the in-flight magazine like it’s his religion and actually circling things with a red pen. You know, so he can buy them later? I can’t. I let out a long breath. Just five more hours. Three hundred minutes. An infinity of seconds— “You’re a pretty terrible flier,” he says without taking his eyes off the magazine. “Tell me something I don’t know,” I moan, leaning my head back and closing my eyes for a second. “Is there anything I can do to help? Do you have any meds you can take?” “I forgot to pack them,” I wail. “And now I’m gonna die in this tin can—with you, no less!” He laughs, and I want to punch him. Instead I concentrate on squeezing my eyes as tightly shut as possible, willing the plane to stop its violent shaking from side to side. “Seriously,” he says, “what can I do to help? You know that turbulence is the same thing as a bump in the road, right? It’s just air pockets—it’s not going to bring the plane down or anything. We’re totally safe—safer than in a car, actually,” he points out. I open my eyes, incredulous. “Did you really just say ‘bring the plane down’ to a nervous flier? Do you know nothing?” He laughs again, turning toward me. “Look,” he starts, “why don’t we talk for a while? Maybe it’ll take your mind off things?” “Talk about what?” I ask, my eyes narrowing suspiciously. “All anyone wants to

talk about with me these days is sex. Sex, sex, sex. Why I’m not having it, who I’ve had it with, and when I’m finally going to have it again.” “Fine. Then let’s talk about sex,” he says matter-of-factly, like this isn’t the worst idea in the world. “Seriously?” I ask. “Why not? I’m game if you are.” “Well, what about it?” I answer, irritated now as the plane drops what feels like a few hundred feet and I let out a yelp. Without even thinking, I grab onto his hand, squeezing his fingers tight. “What if I hadn’t left your apartment that night?” he asks quietly, lowering his voice so that the passing stewardess checking seatbelts can’t hear us. “Do you have any idea what I might’ve done to you?” “Umm, I don’t know,” I say, taken aback, my cheeks immediately hot. “More of what you were already doing?” “That’s not very descriptive,” he chides, squeezing my hand in his own. His fingers are so warm and strong that I’m starting to forget about the fact that I’ll probably die at any moment. “You mean the way I was kissing you up against the wall? My tongue in your mouth and my fingers in your panties?” “Yes,” I manage to squeak out. What the hell is he doing? Didn’t we have an unspoken agreement not to talk about this? And now he brings it up—here?! “You had your hands on my co*ck,” he adds, his voice murmuring low in my ear. “And you were driving me crazy, damn, I wanted to f*ck you so bad. Thrust into that slick tight puss* of yours and just screw your brains out, right there on the living room floor.” Oh. My. God. I swallow hard. I’m not scared I’m going to die anymore, but I am suddenly worried I might come right here in my seat without him even touching me—which is one way to pass the time on a cross-country flight, I suppose. I clench my thighs together and he smirks. “You do remember.” Jake casually rests one hand on my leg and starts tracing slow circles that I can feel even through the fabric of my jeans. “Good. Because I know how you taste now, Lizzie. I know how your c*nt clenches around my fingers, and how your nipples get hard when I bite that spot right on your neck.” He leans closer to me, and I can feel his breath on my skin, smell that citrusy cologne that drives me out of my head. I close my eyes and tilt my head back, losing myself in the heat and forbidden images of his words. “The only thing I don’t know yet is how my dick will feel, embedded in your hot

little c*nt. Do you want to ride me?” Jake asks softly. “Or are you going to just lay back and let me f*ck you senseless, the way you’ve been needing ever since the first night we met?” I shiver, my nipples already pebbling hard under my T-shirt. f*ck, I want him. I want him to do all the dirty things he’s describing right now. “Yeah, I think I’m going to hold you down, and give it to you good,” Jake continues. “Fill you all the way to the damn hilt so you know what a real co*ck feels like, hitting your G-spot, so deep you won’t walk for days—” DING. I open my eyes to see the fasten seatbelt lights turning off, the captain’s voice reverberating loudly overhead. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re just clearing a rough path of air. Thanks so much for your patience, but it should be smooth sailing from here on out. We invite you to sit back and enjoy the rest of your flight to Los Angeles. Holy sh*t. Reality crashes over me like an ice bucket challenge. What just happened? I look over at Jake, my cheeks flaming. “See?” he says, like he wasn’t just reciting the filthiest things imaginable. “It’s all in your mind.” No, it’s all in my panties right now, but f*ck if I’m going to let him see how turned on I am. I exhale loudly, pulling up the window shade to see that we’re sailing peacefully now through the night sky. The plane has miraculously stopped shaking and dipping, and my nerves feel raw from the combination of adrenaline and horniness. Jake pulls his magazine out of the seat pocket and starts reading again. “That’s it?” I ask, confused. “That’s what?” he echoes. “You needed distraction, I was happy to oblige. Why?” he adds with that trademark smirk. “You didn’t think I was serious, did you?” I blush furiously. “Me? What? No!” I lean back in the seat and close my eyes again, trying to ignore the way my body hums. Of course he wasn’t serious. Because to Jake Weston, serious doesn’t exist. Just like sincerity, and feelings, and actual human connection. It’s all just a game to him, and I’ll be damned if I let him see he’s getting to me. He wants to play it cool? I can be cool. Just call me Elsa, queen of the f*cking arctic tundra. Professional. Detached.

Right. THE REST of the flight passes without any major turbulence—or X-rated narration —and soon we’ve landed and headed to the hotel in the rental car. And not just any car, but a 1976 cherry-red Ford Thunderbird convertible. It’s late afternoon in Los Angeles and even though I’m still groggy from the flight, the palm trees and the warm air brushing my face as we drive down Santa Monica Boulevard puts me in a good mood, and I bounce excitedly in my seat as Jake turns into the parking lot of The Standard. “I love hotels,” I swoon. “Give me room service, poolside co*cktails, and turn-down service and I’m a happy girl.” We walk through the weirdly modern lobby with its huge white lights dangling from the ceiling, egg-shaped chairs, and shag carpet underfoot. “I feel like I’m in an Austin Powers movie,” I say to Jake as we approach the desk. “Groovy, baby,” he says, handing the guy behind the desk his credit card. “Why don’t you go and relax and I’ll check us in?” Jake says, pointing to the grove of egg chairs across the room. I drag my suitcase over to the seating area, sinking into one of the retro chairs. Just as I’m getting comfortable, a guy walks into the lobby, pecs straining against his tight black T-shirt, his long legs encased in ripped jeans. He pushes his jaw-length dirty blond hair from his eyes, and stops in his tracks when he sees me. Oh my god—it’s Dale Ryder, indie film darling and Brad Pitt lookalike with abs I could wash clothes on. His last movie, Danger Zone, put him at number five on GQ’s Sexiest Man Alive list—and for good reason. I stare at him like he’s some weird alien specimen. I mean, these people only exist in magazines, they’re not supposed to be walking around like actual human beings! He starts walking over to me, and I quickly look away, fiddling with the tag on my suitcase, reading my own name as if I’ve never seen it before. Did he see me staring? Is this some major LA faux-pas? “Don’t I know you?” I look up. He’s standing right in front of me, smiling with those insanely white teeth that could eat me alive, a day’s worth of golden stubble masking a jaw so chiseled, you could probably cut paper on it. “I don’t think so,” I say slowly, my mind racing. He speaks! “You look familiar,” he says, his blue eyes traveling slowly down the length of my body, then back up. “On vacation?” he asks, taking in my suitcase. “You here to

stay and play in LA?” “Yeah,” I blurt out before correcting myself. “Well, no. I’m here on business.” “Business, huh?” He gives me a naughty smile. “No time for pleasure, then, I take it?” Umm, what? Dale Ryder is FLIRTING with me? Something is seriously screwy, or maybe the LA water supply is polluted with hormones. Or he’s seen the video. f*ck, there goes the fantasy. You know—the fantasy where a mega-successful Hollywood actor just happens to pick me out of a crowd. But before I tell him I’m not interested, something makes me stop. Jake is watching from the front desk with a scowl on his face. I’m still reeling from how fast he made me go from zero to turned on—without ruffling any feathers at all. It’s all just a game to him, so maybe it’s time I found out just how cool his cucumber is. A little jealousy never hurt anyone. “That sounds tempting,” I coo to Dale. “Well, maybe I could make time. Do you have any recommendations?” Before he can respond, Jake walks back over, key cards in hand. He glowers at Dale, who completely ignores him. “I’m here for another week or so,” Dale says, giving me a wink. “But if you want to have dinner, let me know. I’m in the penthouse suite under George Peppard.” “George Peppard—the name of Audrey Hepburn’s love interest in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?” I ask, surprised. He laughs. “You know your movies, huh?” “It’s my job.” I smile back, and explain we’re in town scouting for the Met. “Wow, beautiful and cultured.” Dale doesn’t miss a beat. This guy would have charm oozing from his pores—if they weren’t invisible, thanks to some thousanddollar facial, that is. “I’d love to take you out.” “I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” Jake interrupts, pulling me to my feet. “We have a very busy schedule while we’re here and there’s really no time for anything extra. But thanks anyway.” Before I can say anything, he’s pulling me by the arm toward the elevators, leaving Dale and his gorgeous washboard abs standing by himself, looking more than just a little confused. I hide a smile. Hmmm, there goes his cool act. As soon as we’re out of earshot, I

pull my arm away “Just what do you think you’re doing?” I ask, acting confused. “That was Dale Ryder! Talking to me!” “Didn’t look like talking,” Jake says coolly. “More like flirting, if you ask me.” “And?” I challenge lightly. “What business is it of yours anyway?” “Just looking out for you,” he says in an annoyingly even tone of voice. “Jealous?” I ask, pushing him. “Of what, that pumped up idiot?” Jake laughs it off. The elevator comes to a halt on the tenth floor, the doors opening with a ping. Jake steps out of the elevator, reaching back to hand me a small, white key card. “You’re in 1110,” he says. “Get some rest. We’ve got a big day tomorrow. I’ll meet you in front of the hotel at nine a.m.” The doors slide shut before I can answer. Typical. He just loves to have the last word. And I still don’t know why he’s acting like a jealous boyfriend when he’s made it perfectly clear we’re just working together. Still, it’s hard to stay mad long when I open the door of my own room and find a view of the city and palm trees and a pool with inflatable swans floating around. Ahhh . . . I flop down on the bed, resting my head on the cool, white pillow. I grab the room service menu and dial. “Hello? I’d like a steak, rare, with French fries and a chocolate sundae.” After all, there’s nothing like eating your feelings to make a girl feel better. But even as mad as I am, I can’t stop thinking about Jake’s voice as he talked dirty to me on the plane, the look in his eyes, like he wanted to drag me off to the tiny, cramped airplane bathroom right then and there and pull my skirt up, wrapping my legs around him as he plunges deep inside me . . . And as furious as I am right now, I know that if he had, I would have been all in. So I should be glad he’s acting so weird, right? At least this way, I’m feasting on fried carbs and chocolate, instead of his gorgeous body.

20

LIZZIE

THE NEXT MORNING, I decide to forget about Jake’s weird hot-and-cold routine. I mean, it’s pretty hard to stay mad when it’s eighty degrees and sunny and everywhere you turn the air smells like jasmine. I’ve had an amazing plate of eggs benedict for breakfast and already gone for a swim in the pool. Nothing’s going to bring me down today. Not even Mr. Down With Love himself. Jake’s already in the car, waiting for me, a pair of Ray-Bans slapped over his eyes. “Ready to rumble?” he asks as I slide in and close the door behind me. “Are you going to talk in Hollywood clichés for the whole trip?” I ask, putting my sunglasses on. “Unless you can think of something better to do,” he grins, pulling out into traffic. The drive up to Bel Air is nothing short of magical—the giant mansions with bougainvillea climbing up their elegant facades, the manicured gardens and softly rolling hills. But that’s nothing compared to Max Danforth’s estate. When we pull in, I can’t help but gasp out loud, and even Jake looks impressed. “Whoa,” he says, taking in the huge art deco mansion, the gently trickling fountain at the center of the circular driveway, the fleet of classic cars gleaming in the sunlight. “Quite a pile of bricks Max has here.” “You’re telling me.” I look around. “I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.” Next thing I know, what I assume is a butler in a black suit escorts us inside and we’re walking through an enormous foyer, my heels clicking against the marble floors. This is incredible! The walls are lined with art deco paintings, and the living room, when we finally reach it, is full of expensive antiques. White silk curtains billow at the French doors that frame the garden and pool, and it’s so quiet that I can hear the sound of birds twittering outside. “Wow,” I whisper, taking in the view.

“Not bad,” Jake murmurs. “Not bad at all.” “Glad you think so,” a voice says from behind me. When I turn around, a small, white-haired man is standing in front of me, resting his weight on what looks like a rosewood cane with an elaborate gold top. “I’m Max Danforth,” he says, extending a gnarled hand to me, and then to Jake. “Thanks so much for letting us visit your home,” I gush. “Your collection is legendary, and I know you have reservations about loaning pieces to the museum, but I promise, everything will be treated with kid gloves. Literally!” “You’re right, I’m not in the habit of loaning out my collection,” Danforth says. “But you both were particularly persistent.” “Guilty as charged,” I grin. “And I’m sorry for all the calls. But I have to have your pieces for the exhibit. Your script library, the prop collection . . . From what I’ve read, you’re sitting on the collection of classic Hollywood memorabilia. I couldn’t exactly put on a show without them, it would be a pale imitation of the past!” OK, so I’m laying it on thick, but flattery will get you everywhere. Sure enough, Danforth looks pleased. “I suppose you’re right, I’ve often thought it the most comprehensive collection in the country.” “Absolutely!” I agree. “Is it true you won a grand piano playing poker with Sinatra?” Danforth laughs and then wheezes so hard I worry I’ve killed him. “Urban legend, my dear,” he says when he’s finally recovered. “It was a baby grand.” I sigh loudly. “I would love to see the collection,” I say, and I’m not even acting. Danforth pauses. “Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to look. After all, you’ve come all this way . . .” He rings for the butler again. “Thank you!” I take hold of Jake’s arm. “Did you hear that? He’s going to let us look!” “I heard.” Jake looks amused. “And I’m going to need my arm back.” “Sorry.” I drop it. “I just can’t believe it.” I drop my voice to a whisper. “We have to get his pieces, I don’t care what it takes. Use your powers of charm for good, not evil this time.” Jake grins. “So I’m charming, huh?” “You know what I mean.” Danforth turns back to us, and I quickly shut up. “Shall we?” he asks, and I practically leap after him, following down a long hallway and into an elevator. We

head down to the basem*nt level, and just like that, I’m standing in the room of my dreams, surrounded by Hollywood memorabilia. “Are you kidding me?” I can’t even take it all in. Against the far wall are rows of glass cases—Marilyn Monroe’s famous pink gloves from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes nestled inside one, along with the rhinestone necklace she wore in the “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” number. In another is— “Oh my god,” I squeal. “Is that . . . ?” “Rita Hayworth’s dress from the nightclub scene in Gilda,” Jake answers for me, sounding impressed. Swoon. There’s Grace Kelly’s white evening gown from Hitchco*ck’s To Catch a Thief, and speaking of Hitchco*ck, mechanical birds line another glass case, their beady eyes taking me in. “Do you really have the actual crows from Hitchco*ck’s The Birds?” I demand, scooting closer. “And is that the infamous oil painting from Laura over on the far wall?” “You have a good eye, dear.” Danforth chuckles. I may fall over and die right here. In the far corner of the room, film canisters are stacked neatly on metal shelves and I walk over and take in the titles, my eyes widening as I read. It’s all here—I’m staring at original prints of nearly every significant Hollywood film from the twenties to the fifties. There’s so much crammed into the gigantic space that I don’t know where to even begin. I turn to Jake, feeling as excited as a kid in a candy store. “There’s so much we need,” I whisper to him as I watch Max walk carefully around the enormous room. “Some of these pieces would absolutely make the show.” He nods, and I can tell by the wonder in his eyes that he’s blown away, too. I walk over to the painting of Gene Tierney in Laura, and stare up at her perfect face, lost in the mystery in her smile. ‘That was my wife’s favorite film,” Danforth says, and when I turn, he’s standing beside me. “She adored Tierney, who was underused as an actress in Hollywood—if you want my opinion. Lovely woman.” “Your wife or Gene Tierney?” I joke. “Well, I was referring to Tierney,” Danforth says with a smile, “but my wife was equally as lovey, if not more so.” “You knew her?” I ask, incredulous. “Gene Tierney, I mean.”

“Oh, yes.” He smiles, gazing at the portrait fondly. “Quite well, in fact. She’d come over for dinner quite often in those days. So when this piece came up for auction a few years ago at Sotheby’s, I simply had to have it.” “It’s beautiful,” I breathe, taking it in. “Laura was one of the first films that gave me an appreciation for classic Hollywood,” I say. “It was like my gateway drug.” “We share that in common. The mystery, the glamor . . .” His voice trails off wistfully. “You know I met my late wife on the old Paramount lot? She was working in one of the sandwich bars. I used to go in every day just to see her smile. She couldn’t make a tuna melt to save her life, but it didn’t matter to me. The day she agreed to go out with me . . . I’ve never been so happy—or terrified,” he adds with a laugh. I can see it on his face, he’s right back there. “Of course, in those days, I was still just an errand boy,” he adds. “Running messages for the big shots in the main office. I didn’t have two dimes to rub together, so we would sneak into matinees on the weekend and go make a coffee last all night at the diner across the street. All the stars would go after work,” he adds. “We were rubbing shoulders right there with them. A little taste of stardust, Moira would say.” I listen, fascinated. “It must have been incredible,” I say. “History being made, all around you.” “We didn’t realize it at the time,” he chuckles. “But yes, there was magic there, for sure. We loved the movies, it’s what brought us together. After she passed in ’73, I decided to start building this collection. So I could keep all the memories we shared, as fresh as the day she was here.” “Oh.” I pause. From the way he’d talked, I assumed his wife died more recently, but that was almost fifty years ago! “That’s . . . lovely.” “Now you must see this,” he says, brightening. He pulls me across the room with surprising strength. “It’s a rare copy of the original script for Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart’s notes throughout!” THREE HOURS LATER, my head is spinning. I’ve found at least ten pieces I’d love to include in the show, but I’d settle for just about anything, really. But even though Max spent the better part of the morning gleefully showing us his treasure trove, he’s been decidedly noncommittal about whether or not we can include any of them in the exhibition. “It was a real pleasure meeting you,” I say warmly as I shake his hand at the door. “If there’s any way we can reassure you, just ask. I’d be happy to run through the

transportation protocols, or arrange a call with our team back in New York about storage and display—” “Another time, my dear,” Danforth says. “I’m afraid I’ve over-exerted myself. It’s time for my nap.” Jake tugs me back. “Thanks so much for allowing us to view your collection,” he says respectfully. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” “I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Max says. He starts to close the door, and although I know I’m supposed to be polite and let the old man nap, it’s like watching the door close on that collection for good. “Wait!” I put my foot in the doorway, holding it open. “I’m sorry, but I can’t leave without begging you one last time. I know this is an incredibly sentimental collection for you, but that’s the point of this show. It’s what I’m trying to capture. All these things: the movies, the props, they’re not just things, are they?” I demand. “I know some people don’t understand, they look at objects and just see the materials right in front of them.” I give Jake a look. “But you and I, we know, there’s more than that. It’s like you said, there’s a little stardust that lingers. The stories they tell matter, and sometimes those stories are the only things that keep us holding on. Believing in a glimpse of that magic, even when the world seems determined to prove us wrong.” I know I’m babbling now, and basically spilling all of my own emotional issues right here on the gleaming marble floor, but maybe my desperation works, because Max pauses. “Please,” I add again. “Your collection is to commemorate your wife, so why not share that with the world? Share your love, and everything that brought you together. Don’t just keep it in the basem*nt, let the rest of us be inspired, too!” Max pauses, and I can see the deliberation in his face. “You promise to take good care of them?” he asks, his watery gaze searching mine. I nod wordlessly, too nervous to actually speak. “All right then,” he says with a smile. “You can have your pick. As long as they’re returned to me in perfect condition. Do we have a deal?” “Yes!” I cry, and I can’t help it, I throw my arms around him in a hug that nearly knocks us both down. Max coughs, and detaches himself. “I’ll have the museum call tomorrow,” I tell him. “And send a list of the pieces we need. Thank you!” “Thank you, my dear.” He smiles. “You’re right. Everyone needs a little stardust.”

21

JAKE

WE GET BACK in the car and Lizzie gets straight on the phone to New York to proudly tell Morgan we’ve secured the collection. “That’ll show her!” she gloats, hanging up. “She’s been waiting for me to fail since I started this thing, well not today, Satan!” I chuckle. “Good job back there,” I tell her. “That ‘bigger meaning’ routine was the perfect approach. He ate it up.” “It wasn’t a routine,” Lizzie says, but then she realizes we’re not heading back to the hotel. “Wait, where are we going?” “You’ll see,” I tell her. I didn’t plan on taking a detour, but it’s a gorgeous day. Plus, the longer we spend outside, in public, the less likely I am to do something stupid—like f*ck her in the middle of that king-sized hotel bed. She’s driving me crazy. I swore I’d keep things professional, but when she got all scared on the flight, I couldn’t help myself. I just meant to distract her from all the turbulence, but once I got started turning her on . . . I couldn’t stop. Those eyes of hers dilated, and her lips parted, and the way she was wriggling in her seat told me that if I’d just slipped a hand down her jeans I would have found her puss* hot and wet and waiting for me. Goddamn, it was hot. And totally off limits. But maybe that’s why she’s got me with a permanent hard-on these days. The thrill of the chase, right? We always want what we can’t have, and with Lizzie on strike, there’s no way she’s giving it up, not for me. But that just makes me want her more. She’s sexy, and smart, and fun, and . . . Easy there, tiger. I stop myself. Don’t sh*t where you eat, remember? Except I do remember eating Lizzie. Vividly.

I drive for a while through neighborhoods lined with palm trees, then turn up a long curving hill flanked by trees and craggy rocks. There’s even a cute little organic café at the base of the hill where joggers in spandex sit outside drinking coffee and checking their iPhones. As I’m craning my neck out the window to get a better view, I catch a sign that says Griffith Park. “I’m not exactly dressed for hiking,” Lizzie points out. She’s wearing a vintage sundress and heels, and she looks f*cking adorable. “Sure about that?” I ask. “You could totally hike in that if you wanted to.” “Right,” she laughs. “Just me and my heels, hitting the trail. Seriously,” she adds, looking around as we drive deeper into the woods. “Did I mention I hate nature? They have bears out here. And coyotes.” “Patience,” I say as we drive up and up the winding road. Finally, we emerge from the trees, and just like that, there’s all of Los Angeles spread out in front of us, shimmering in the midday sun like a mirage. “Is that the observatory from Rebel Without a Cause?” Lizzie gasps, looking up the hill. The big white dome-shaped building is propped on the hill, surrounded by lawn. I nod. “Now, there’s a movie we can agree on.” We park, and follow a sidewalk up to the observatory. “This is where they shot the famous fight scene,” Lizzie squeals, looking around. “James Dean and Natalie Wood were right over there, right where that girl in the blue yoga pants is standing!” I laugh, and she blushes. “I’m a dork, I know,” she says. “But this kind of stuff really does make me unreasonably happy. And is that the planetarium over there?” “Yup.” I smile, watching her. I had a feeling she’d like this place, and it feels good to do something to make her happy. “Thank you for bringing me here,” she beams. “This is really cool.” “No problem.” I act casual, but she gives me a puzzled look. “I can’t figure you out. You sneer at me for caring about this stuff, then turn around and do something nice like bringing me here.” “I guess I’m a man of mystery,” I quip, trying to deflect the praise. “Anyway, congrats. You pulled it off with Danforth, I thought that guy would never agree.” I think of him, alone in that f*cking tomb. “Creeps me out, the way he has that shrine to his late wife. I mean, I’m all for keeping the memory alive, but that was weird, right?”

“Weird but touching,” Lizzie says with a dopey smile. I shake my head. “He’s living in the past, clinging onto all that stuff like it can bring her back.” “I think it’s romantic,” she argues. “Those possessions mean something to him.” “Romance . . .” I groan. “Are we really back there again? Wait, don’t even answer that. You’re still drinking the Kool-Aid as far as roses and chocolates are concerned.” Lizzie pauses. I turn, and she lets out a sigh. “I don’t know,” she says, leaning against the railing. “I’m beginning to think you might be right.” “What?” I tease. “I didn’t quite catch that. Say it again?” She pushes me lightly. “Don’t get used to it. It’s just, this whole strike is screwing everything up. It’s hard to know who to trust, or what anyone’s motives are,” Lizzie looks lost. “I mean, if a guy asks me out now, I’m always wondering, does he really like me? Or does he just want to try and get me into bed for some kind of power trip? I just wish I’d never posted that stupid video in the first place,” she adds. “It’s made everything so complicated.” And horny. Don’t forget the horny. “I thought it would at least weed out the guys who only want to get laid, but instead, it’s like waving a red flag to a bull!” she continues in despair. “You would have figured publically swearing off sex would send the assholes running in the other direction, but nope! I don’t understand.” I pause. sh*t. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to tell her about Dapper’s bounty, but it looks like I don’t have a choice. This thing hasn’t blown over the way I hoped, and if anything, it’s even more important she knows. I mean, everyone’s chasing after her now. Take that Dale Hollywood dude at the hotel—there’s no way he hasn’t heard about the bounty. I mean, Lizzie’s hot, but guys like that care about headlines, not how great a girl is. A famous A-lister wouldn’t be sniffing around her if there wasn’t a PR opportunity for him. I brace myself. “Look, Lizzie,” I start. “I need to tell you something—” “Excuse me.” We’re suddenly interrupted. “Would you mind taking our picture?” An older woman holds out her iPhone towards us. “Sorry to interrupt,” she says excitedly, “but we’re visiting from Canada and I’d love to get a photo of the two of us here!” “Sure.” Lizzie takes her phone and snaps a pic of them grinning like crazy in front of the city, the Hollywood sign directly behind them.

“Enjoy your trip!” She turns back to me. “What were you saying?” She looks so happy, I can’t bring myself to wreck her high. “Nothing,” I say. “I’ll tell you later.” “OK.” She takes one last look around and snaps some pics of her own, too. “We should probably head back. There’s a ton of logistics we need to arrange to transport Danforth’s collection.” “Right.” I nod, still feeling guilty. “But let’s get dinner later. And talk, OK?” She grins. “Sure, I’ll just tell Dale Ryder to meet me another time.” I groan. “Seriously, that asshole?” “Just because he’s famous, doesn’t make him an asshole,” Lizzie laughs. “Who knows, maybe he’s going to sweep me off my feet into a world of movie premieres and room service?” I want to punch the guy out right now. “Not tonight. Be ready at six.” “Sure,” she smiles. “It’s a not-date.” I’ll tell her tonight, I decide, as we drive back to the hotel. Soften the blow with a drink or two, and just rip off the band-aid. After all, it’s not my bounty. I told Miles what a bad idea it was. She won’t hate me. Much. Right?

22

LIZZIE

“HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU, kid.” I check my reflection in the giant wall of mirrors in the hotel lobby. My black, fifties-style co*cktail dress isn’t exactly LA-casual, but who cares? A dress like this was made to be worn, not left in a dark suitcase. I look around. Jake was weirdly insistent about meeting on time. I figured we would just catch a bite in the hotel bar, but he’s nowhere to be seen. My phone buzzes. Outside. I head out the door, and am greeted with a wolf-whistle. Jake’s got the Thunderbird pulled around, and he’s standing by the passenger door, wearing a charcoal grey suit that could put Cary Grant to shame. Damn. I try not to drool. This whole “platonic co-worker” thing would be so much easier if he wasn’t so hot. Would it kill him to have a beer gut? Bald patch? Halitosis and a skin disease? “You look beautiful,” he says smoothly, as I slide into the car. “Thanks. You clean up pretty well yourself.” He gets behind the wheel and we drive up Hollywood Boulevard. The sunset is fading in a red-orange glow so gorgeous that I want to immediately sell my stuff and move out here without looking back. “We don’t get sunsets like this in New York,” I sigh. “It’s the smog,” Jake says, a romantic ’til death, but even he can’t ruin my good mood. Or the rumble in my stomach. “So, where are we going?” I ask, looking around. “Ooh, In-N-Out!” Jake laughs. “You want to eat junk food?” “Burgers aren’t junk,” I inform him. “They’re the noblest of all food groups.” “Well, we agree about that.” He flashes me a grin. “Just hang tight, we’re almost

there.” We drive another couple of blocks to a non-descript building just off Hollywood. I was expecting something a bit more flashy from Jake, but when we step inside, it all makes sense. Dimly-lit leather booths, black-and-white photographs—it’s like we just stepped back in time. “I love it!” I exclaim, after we sit and the waiter takes our order. Jake smiles. “It’s been around since 1919. All the old stars came here, look.” He nods to the autographed photos on the wall. Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo . . . “You mean Greta Garbo might have sat on this exact seat!” I stroke the cracked leather. “And you pretend you’ve got no soul.” Jake frowns. “Since when?” “You know, all your bitter cynicism.” I laugh. “It’s OK, I won’t try to convert you anymore. I know my limits.” “I’m not bitter.” Jake sounds put out, but the waiter interrupts with two ice-cold vodka martinis. “To teamwork,” I toast. “And the big exhibition. Who knows, we might actually get it ready to open in time.” “Of course we will,” Jake states. “And it’ll be amazing.” I wish I could be so confident, but securing the exhibits is only the beginning. There’s still curating the rooms and writing up the materials, and Morgan has even been making noise about some big opening event. But right now, the Met and New York City are thousands of miles away, and I’m going to enjoy the small victories where I can. Like steak dinners, and getting Danforth to agree to loan us his collection . . . And sitting opposite a gorgeous guy in a romantic restaurant, toasting to our joint success. Because he is looking incredible tonight, with his suit clinging to his perfectly-muscular frame, and those blue eyes smiling at me across the table with their “come to bed” stare— Down, Lizzie. I take a sip of my drink to distract myself. “Goddamn if this isn’t the best martini I’ve ever had in my life.” “Just wait until you taste the steak,” Jake says. “You’ve been here before?” He nods. “My father moved out here for wife number two. That lasted a couple of

years. Three was in New Mexico on a commune, and Four I think is over in Poland still, until they get her visa.” “Wow. And I thought my family holidays were complicated enough.” Our steaks arrive, and sure enough, the meat is as tender as butter under my knife, and I close my eyes and let out a low moan as I chew. “This is fantastic.” When I pause for air, I look up and find Jake looking at me with a weird expression on his face. “What?” I ask. “Do I have steak sauce on my face or something?” “Not at all,” he says after a long moment. “You just look really beautiful tonight.” What? “Um, thanks.” I blush, and he holds my gaze for what feels like forever. And these martinis must be way stronger than back home, because my blood runs hot with the alcohol. At least, I think it’s the booze. It has to be. Because if one thing has been established beyond a shadow of a doubt, it’s that Jake Weston is all wrong for me. So why can’t I seem to look away from him? And how can I feel his gaze on every inch of my skin, until it’s like I’m slowly catching on fire, smoke curling around my body, ready to combust? “I’ll be right back,” I blurt, jumping out of the booth. I make a beeline for the bathrooms—before I can melt into a puddle of lust on the same seat that Greta Garbo definitely maybe sat her ass. What the hell am I playing at? I run cold water over my hands and give myself a stern talking-to in the bathroom mirror. OK, so Jake is smokin’ hot tonight, and as charming as ever, but I figured I was past that by now. He’s a rat, remember? A super rat. He scorns romance, thinks commitment is for dummies, and has been making fun of my strike since the moment it began. So out of all the men I could scratch my itch with, why do I want so badly for it to be him? Because you already know how good it would be . . . I groan in frustration. It’s been MONTHS since I got laid—not that anyone’s counting—so I’ve got all that pent-up desire whirling around, and worse still, it’s Jake I see every time I close my eyes. That false start at New Year’s . . . the moment of madness up against my wall . . . that dirty-talk on the flight. Every time he puts his hands on me, the chemistry is enough to make me lose my mind. Because that’s what it would be if we hooked up: a serious lapse in judgment.

And hard. And hot. And sexy as hell. So what’s stopping me? It’s not like anyone would know. What happens in LA, stays in LA . . . The thought dances a tantalizing jig in my mind as I fix my makeup and re-emerge from the ladies’, heading back to our table. But I’m halfway across the room when the hostess rushes out from behind her podium. “You’re Lizzie, right?” she asks, throwing back a mane of dark hair that would make a Kardashian envious. “From the video?” I try not to cringe. “Guilty as charged.” “I knew it!” She claps her hands together, wide-eyed and excited. “I just had to say something to you before you left—you’re my hero!” I blink. “I am?” “Of course!” she gushes. “You’re such an inspiration! I mean, because of your video, I finally dumped my asshole boyfriend after years of putting up with his ridiculous bullsh*t. Now I’m focusing on me and getting back to figuring out what I really want in life—I’m even starting my own business!” “That’s great!” I say. “And it’s all because of you.” She beams at me, and for a weird moment, I understand what it must be like to be Dale Ryder or some celebrity—having people gaze at you with total adoration. It’s creepy. Creepy as f*ck. “Congratulations,” I say again, backing away. “But really, I didn’t do anything. If you’ve made some great changes in your life, that’s all you!” “No way.” She shakes her head firmly. “You don’t understand. You’re an inspiration. An icon! All my friends agree. If it wasn’t for you, I’d still be putting up with Shane’s f*cking stand-up comedy routines just so, what, he can stick it in for a couple of minutes? What good is sex, anyway?” A requirement? Like air? “f*ck that sh*t!” she says loudly. “And f*ck all those guys who don’t truly deserve us. Why should we give up everything we believe in just to get laid? Solidarity, sister!” she says, squeezing my arm. “You’re the one making it happen. Don’t give up!” I finally tear away and walk back to our booth, feeling like a zombie. “What was that about?” Jake asks.

I shake my head, suddenly racked with guilt. Just moments before, I was actually contemplating breaking my strike, and with Jake, of all people. But apparently, this thing is still bigger than I ever imagined. I’m an icon! A legend! Can I really let the sisterhood down just because I’m having a moment of weakness? I look over at Jake, the way the light falls across his cheekbones, and all at once I’m paralyzed with the desire to run my fingers through his hair. And tear all his clothes off. f*ck. When did everything get so complicated? And why suddenly does every choice feel like the wrong one? “Dessert?” he asks. “Definitely.” Chocolate is always the answer, but by the time we’ve eaten our way through a molten lava cake, picked up the check, and driven back to the hotel, I’m still fighting an epic battle in my mind. It’s not so much head versus heart as head versus loins, because damn, Jake takes my hand to help me out of the car, and then presses his palm into the small of my back as he walks me into the hotel lobby, and just like that, I’m reduced to a mess of wild hormones all over again. I take a deep breath, ignoring the heat in my blood and the way my skin is tingling. I’m almost home free. I just have to make it up to my room—alone—and then I can lock the door and go spend some quality time with that detachable shower head I spied in the bathroom. Twenty seconds away, tops. Thirty. “Are you OK?” Jake asks as we wait for the elevator. “You look all . . . flushed.” “Uh huh.” My answer comes out all strangled. “Maybe you’re coming down with something.” He frowns and presses the back of his hand to my forehead, his eyes searching mine. “No! I’m fine!” I yelp, leaping into the elevator as soon as the doors open. He follows. “Are you sure?” he checks again. “You might have picked something up on the flight. I’ll call down to room service and get you a hot tea, maybe that will help.” f*ck, just look at him, all worried and sexy and ready to tuck me into bed. Double f*ck! God, I want to kiss him. Oh, jeez, why can’t I just admit it? I want to do a lot more than kiss him, actually. I want to feel his mouth on mine, and his co*ck hard against me as he pushes me up against the wall and spreads my legs and—

“You’re definitely sick,” Jake says, touching my cheek again. “Your temperature is way up.” His hand lingers, burning my skin, and f*ck, I can’t take it anymore. Before I can talk myself out of this all over again, I reach up and pull him closer, kissing him the way I’ve wanted to ever since that night at my apartment, ever since I first laid eyes on him on New Year’s Eve. To hell with sense and reason. I want him. Now.

23

LIZZIE

WE’RE KISSING like the world’s about to end and we’re the last two survivors on earth. Jake groans, pushing me roughly up against the elevator wall. His tongue slides into my mouth, and my legs go weak. God, this man can kiss. I loop my arms around his neck, yanking him closer. I’m greedy for the taste of him —and the feel of his lean, hard body up against mine. His hands move down my back and squeeze my ass, and I arch against him, needing him inside me right this minute. Then the door opens with a ding, and Jake grabs my hand, yanking me down the hallway to his room. He fumbles with the keycard, but it finally swipes, and then we’re inside, alone. I reach for him again, but Jake backs away. “What about the strike?” he asks, breathing hard. His eyes are stripping me naked and I groan. Dammit with these questions requiring actual answers and thought when all I want to do is tear his clothes off and make the neighbors complain about the noise. Think, Lizzie. You need a plan. “The strike,” I repeat. “Right. f*ck.” To hell with the strike, I want to cry, but he’s right. This isn’t just some random hook-up, it has stakes and consequences and— “f*ck.” Jake kisses me again, hard and hot, and the strike seems like the furthest thing from my mind. He drags his mouth away and nibbles on my earlobe. “We don’t have to do everything,” he says, sliding his hands between my thighs. He rubs me softly through my dress and I moan, it feels so f*cking good. “Everything but?” I ask through the haze. “I don’t care,” he growls, spinning me around to face him. “I just want to hear you scream my name when you come.”

f*ck. How’s a girl supposed to turn down an invitation like that? “Deal,” I gasp, as he kisses down my neck. We stumble across the room to the bed, stripping off clothes as we go. He throws me down on the soft mattress and yanks my dress off, burying his face in my breasts. I run my hands over his naked chest and he nips at my nipple through my bra. I shudder, then he peels the lace away and lavishes me with kisses, lapping and sucking until I’m dizzy and my nipples are straining up in stiff peaks. “Just so you know, your breasts are epic.” He lifts his head with a grin. “Thanks!” My voice comes out a squeak, but I can’t help it. Months of sexual tension are shooting through my bloodstream, and my head is spinning from all the amazing sensations flooding my nearly-naked body. I reach to explore his body, but Jake kisses over my stomach, his lips trailing softly down to my thighs. I tense, but he teases me: stroking over my body, reaching up to toy with my breasts as his tongue roves closer, closer—then retreats from the one place I need him most. I wriggle impatiently. God, I’m wound so tight, I don’t think I could get any wetter, and the way his nose and tongue are brushing lightly against my panties is driving me insane. “Jake,” I whimper, frustrated, and I hear him chuckle. “That’s right, baby. Beg for it.” I lift my head and fix him with a glare. “Really? You’re going to pull that smug asshole bullsh*t right now?” Jake co*cks an eyebrow and deliberately strokes my cl*t through my panties, slowly circling and massaging it just right. I moan. “Oh my god!” “Say it,” he orders me, and f*ck if it isn’t the hottest thing, seeing him all dominant and steely between my legs. “Say my name.” I bite my lip and shake my head. “Make me,” I challenge in a whisper, and he grins. “My pleasure.” He tugs off my panties, and spreads my legs wide. Still holding my gaze, he stokes me again. “Ooohh . . .” I have to clench my jaw to keep from giving him what he wants. But f*ck, that feels so good. Jake slides a finger inside me and curls. I shudder, my body bearing down against his hand on instinct, but it’s not enough. “More,” I gasp.

“More, please,” he corrects me, fluttering his finger inside me. Oh god, f*ck his know-it-all stare. I need it. Him, all of him, inside me, on top of me, f*cking me senseless into these hotel sheets. “Please,” I say, breaking. “Please, Jake. More!” “That’s my girl.” He lowers his head and licks up against me, and I lose my f*cking mind. His tongue ravages me, licking and swirling over my tender cl*t until I’m gripping the pillows, crying out for more. He slides another finger inside me and pumps, and f*ck, it’s good. Fuller and thicker and right where I need it. I’m so close, but I don’t want to come, not just yet. I reach down and he raises his head up, breathing hard. “Take it off,” I say breathlessly, and he starts undoing his belt, his fingers moving quickly, but not quickly enough, so I finish the job, freeing his co*ck so it juts up, hard and ready for me. I fist him in my hand and he groans, and then I can’t resist dipping my head to lick the tip, teasing at his straining head. Jake lets out a curse and dives back between my legs, his hands gripping hard on my thighs. I send up a silent thanks for all that yoga Della made me do, because I may not be doing Wounded Peaco*ck right now, but I can sure as hell manage a 69. I curl around to take him in my mouth, and although it’s hard to focus through the haze of incredible pleasure, I suck at him eagerly, loving the salty taste and how his co*ck leaps in my mouth. He’s driving me closer to the edge, I’m not going to last long, but f*ck, I try to hold back, fisting his co*ck and swirling my tongue against his sensitive tip. Jake pumps his fingers inside me and sucks at my cl*t, tonguing my bud just right, and it’s too much. I explode. f*ck! I moan against him, the waves crashing through me as I lift my head and cry out in pleasure, pumping him in my fist as my body shakes with the most incredible org*sm of my life. Jake echoes my groan, and then he’s coming, too, spurting hotly all over my naked chest as the pleasure claims us both. I collapse back on the bed. Holy sh*t! Slowly the world comes filtering back in. My chest is sticky, and I can’t keep from giggling at the déjà vu. “What?” Jake asks, lifting his head. I grin. “Nothing. Just . . . third time’s a charm.” He gives me a quizzical look, but I don’t explain. I let out a yawn and stretch, and my stomach makes a loud rumbling sound. “Hungry again?” He laughs. “org*sms burn a lot of calories.” I grab the room service menu from the bedside

table and toss it at him. “You better order me some sustenance for round two,” I say, getting out of bed and walking to the bathroom. “Something tells me you’re going to need it.” I smile, grabbing my purse and closing the door. I turn on the shower, setting the water to hot. God, I needed that. My whole body is humming with pleasure—and technically, I didn’t even break the strike. You’ve got to love the technicalities. Still, as amazing as that was, there’s still a craving deep inside me—and I know just what it needs. That gorgeous hard co*ck, buried deep inside me. Damn, always wanting what I can’t have. But you can have it. Just say the word—and maybe wait five minutes—and Jake could be f*cking you just the way you need . . . I’m torn. That org*sm was just an appetizer, and I want the main course. “Everything but” is fine when you’re a teenager dry-humping in your parents’ basem*nt, but as a grown woman? I like a three-course meal with all the trimmings. And by trimmings, I mean his dick. My phone buzzes just as I’m about to jump in the shower. It’s Della, and I can hear Jake ordering room service, so I pick up. “I’m a bad girl,” I greet her. “But damn, it feels good.” “Tell me you didn’t f*ck him!” Della sounds panicked. I stop. “No . . .” I answer slowly. “Why? What’s going on?” “Dapper magazine put a f*cking bounty on you,” Della exclaims. “Fifty thousand dollars to whoever makes you break the strike.” “What?” I sit down on the edge of the tub. “No, you must have it wrong.” “It’s right there on their website, in the VIP section.” Della is spitting mad. “Zach found it, I had him give me his login info. I’m sorry babe, those f*ckers are like teenagers in heat. It’s all about the glory to them.” “Send me the link,” I say, still not believing it. Dapper is Miles’ magazine, right? Jake’s friend. Jake’s best friend. “Here you go.” A text comes through. “I’m sorry, what a f*cking asshole,” Della continues. “Are you OK? When do you get back?”

“Tomorrow,” I say numbly. “Look, I can’t . . . I have to go.” In a daze, I hang up and click the link Della sent. And there it is, right in front of me. The bounty, along with a photo of me, too. No wonder guys have been after me! They want to be the one to scale Mount Everest, and stick a f*cking flag in my puss*. But Jake . . . ? I can’t believe it. There’s no way he doesn’t know about this, so is this what tonight was all about? The dinner, the flirting, the amazing org*sms? He was just greasing the wheel for the main event. And I nearly fell for it. f*ck! The disappointment sinks through me like lead. And the betrayal. To think, I actually thought I’d gotten him wrong. That there was someone decent lurking under his designer suits. I guess I wanted to believe in the fantasy of it all, the wounded guy hiding a heart of gold. But sometimes, if he walks like an asshole, and talks like an asshole . . . He’s a f*cking asshole. And his cum is still all over my naked chest. Ugh. I jump in the shower and scrub myself clean hard enough to take off a layer of skin. There’s a knock at the door. “Food’s on it’s way up,” Jake calls. “How about I join you in there?” “Too late. All done.” I quickly towel myself off and open the door, avoiding looking at him as I hunt for my dress. “What do you need that for?” Jake’s voice is lazy and thick with sex. “Come back to bed, I’m not finished with you.” “Oh, we’re finished, alright.” When I’m clothed, I finally let myself look at him. He’s sprawled on the bed again, so hot it splits my chest in two. “But don’t worry, if you get lonely, you can just read the latest issue of Dapper. Or better yet, the online edition.” His face changes. “Yup,” I spit. “I know. So f*ck you, f*ck your stupid bet, and f*ck the fifty grand you won’t be making tonight. Because I’m done.” I walk out the door, slamming it behind me. And my heart breaks in two.

24

LIZZIE

WHAT DO you do when you find out the guy you maybe, sort of, kind of, completely have been falling for is nothing but a lying, puss*-chasing douchebag? In my case, you drink all the minibar vodka and pass out crying over an old screening of Titanic on the hotel TV. I wake up with a killer hangover, with barely enough time to throw myself—and my baggage—into the cab and make it to the airport in time for our early flight. Ours. Because despite wanting him to disappear off the face of the earth, I’m still stuck on this trip with the super rat himself. He tried to talk to me in the car, but I just put my sunglasses on, plugged my earbuds in, and blasted Beyoncé all the way back to New York City. When life gives you lemons, put Lemonade on repeat play. By the time we get off the plane from LA and walk into the terminal, I’m just about ready to explode, or break down in messy sobs, and I know, neither will be pretty. I’ve never been so happy to set foot back in New York, with its noisy, chaotic airport, and even noisier citizens screaming at baggage claim, not to mention the hordes of children running around like deranged, dirty savages. The flight itself was the very definition of miserable—until I got some older businessman type to switch seats with me so I didn’t have to be anywhere near the Bounty Hunter himself. And let’s be honest—the three bourbon and co*kes I threw back on the flight didn’t exactly hurt either. Hair of the dog, and all that. I stride as far away from Jake as I can get and keep my eyes glued to the revolving carousel, willing my red suitcase to come out first—which would be nothing short of a total miracle, since I usually have the abysmal luck of being the last person standing there waiting for my bag—on the flights where it isn’t completely lost, that is. I mean, why should anything actually go right on this trip? Jake walks up beside me, his hands shoved into his pockets, his eyes searching the

conveyor belt. I can feel his nervous energy, and every muscle in my body tightens up on his approach. If he even so much as tries to touch me, I might break into a million pieces. In the not-helping-things department is also the fact that I slept for about an hour on the plane—if that. I would give my left arm—not to mention my first-born child—for an Americano right now. I mean, seriously, whoever invented the concept of the air travel should be strenuously punished. No trial, no jury—just straight to execution. “You okay?” Jake asks, interrupting my homicidal thoughts. I paste my brightest, fakest smile on my face, which takes all the energy I have left, since I sat up most of last night crying in my hotel room. My eyes are still so swollen that I had to ice them in the morning, just so they’d open properly. Thank god for sunglasses. “I’m great!” I chirp. “Just a little tired from the flight is all.” I make the mistake of glancing over, and he looks so uncomfortable and guilty that for a minute I wonder if he really does care. But then I remember that nothing that happened between us was real. For him—I was just a bet. “Are you sure?” he asks. “Because we should probably talk . . . you know, about last night. I wanted to say—” “You don’t need to say anything!” I cut him off. “I get it. Believe me, I understand everything.” “I don’t think you do. Look, Lizzie, if you give me a chance to explain—” “There’s nothing to explain.” I glower at him. I see my red suitcase tumbling down the chute and onto the carousel and I let out a sigh of relief. There is a god! And she’s clearly a woman. I rush over to grab it so I don’t have to hear whatever sweet-talk comes out of Jake’s mouth next, then drag it to the exit at a sprint while he’s stuck stranded waiting for his bags. I haul ass into a cab, and slam the door behind me. “Brooklyn,” I tell the driver. “And step on it.” I sit back and check my phone, home to about a dozen concerned texts from Della, Melissa, and my sister, all wanting to know if I’ve seen the bounty and how I’m holding up. Not good, Bob. Not f*cking good. The pain hits me again, now that the booze is wearing off. The betrayal, the disappointment, and most of all, the hurt. That Jake could play me like a goddamn fiddle. I thought our connection was real, but it was all a lie—every bit of it. The look in his eyes as he brushed the hair away from my face, the feel of his hands on

my skin.. I feel the tears rising and have to swallow them back. No. I’m not crying over that smooth-talking son of a bitch, not anymore. Why should I be the one sobbing when he’s the assrat who treated me like some kind of trophy? Him and his friend Miles, and that stupid magazine. I feel the hurt turn to anger, and yes, that’s more like it. The rage flooding my body is so much better than caffeine—no need for coffee anymore. I mean, who does this Miles guy think he is, anyway? And what gives him the right to mess with my life like it’s some sort of sick game? I open up my browser and search for the Dapper webpage, clicking on the “contact us” button. “Forget Brooklyn,” I tell the driver. “We’re making a stop in Soho first.” THE DAPPER OFFICES are on the twelfth floor in a predictably phallic building of glass and steel—windows everywhere, framed magazine covers with the likes of Sophia Vergara and Kate Hudson half-naked and smiling down at me. I stride through the main office to the reception area, where a bottle blond sits behind a desk, punching the keyboard with nails so long and red I’m surprised she can actually function with them on, much less type anything legible. “Is Miles in?” I ask sweetly. “He is,” she says, looking startled. “But he’s in a meeting right now.” “Not anymore.” I stride past her, making a beeline for the corner office at the end of the open-plan layout. “Hey!” she calls after me. “You can’t go in there! I told you he’s—” I throw the door open dramatically and stride inside. “I want a word with you!” I declare loudly, but my big entrance is cut short as my heel catches on the edge of the huge rug. I trip, falling right into the arms of none other than Jake Weston, who’s standing near the door, looking at me with a bemused expression on his face. Whoops. I tear away from him like I’ve been burned. “I should’ve known you’d come here,” I spit. “Calling in your report? Sorry to say, he didn’t close the deal,” I glare at Miles, who’s cowering behind his desk. “And if he tells you otherwise, he’s a f*cking liar.” “I didn’t lie.” Jake sounds put out, and I quell him with a look. “Seriously.” He keeps talking, which shows a serious lack of concern for his bodily safety right now. “I came here to make him call it all off. The bounty, everything. I said from the

start it was a stupid idea.” “Nice try,” I snort. “But it’s a little too late for that.” I turn back to face Miles, who’s edging towards the phone. “What, are you going to call security?” I demand. “Because I could call someone too right now. My lawyer!” “Now, now, there’s no need for that,” Miles quakes. “Why not?” I say, pretending like I’m the kind of person who really does have a lawyer on speed-dial, instead of just five different take-out restaurants. “I could sue you for emotional distress, fraud, who knows what else?” “I’m sorry! It was just good fun,” he protests. “My wife’s been driving me crazy on this strike, and I’ll do anything to make it end. You weren’t supposed to even know!” “Because when you post something on the internet, it always stays a secret,” I scorn. “Did you really not consider the fact that I’m a living, breathing person and that what happens in my vagin* is nothing to do with you?” “Lizzie, I wanted to tell you,” Jake interrupts, and his face is so sincere, I want to believe him. But right now I just can’t. Even if those blue eyes are beseeching me, and he’s running a hand through that rumpled mop of hair, and he looks way too good to have just been stuck in a tin can in the sky for the past six hours. “Don’t even get me started on you,” I say, my voice quiet, but the hurt rings out for anyone to hear. He looks at the floor, chastened. This is a Jake Weston I’ve never seen before—humble and apologetic. Too bad I’m only really meeting him now. He seems like he’d probably be a nice guy. “You are going to take the f*cking bounty down,” I say, stabbing a finger in Miles’ direction. “And you are going to stay away and never speak to me again.” I glare at Jake. “Unless it’s about work, or the words out of your mouth are limited to, ‘Here, I have an extra doughnut for you,’ ‘Yes, I’m total scum,’ and ‘Can I please have the honor of bringing you a venti latte?’ Got it?” They both nod, looking guilty. “Good.” I stalk back to the door, careful not to trip this time. “Oh, and Miles? If you want to figure out why your wife won’t f*ck you, maybe ASK HER, instead of paying men to seduce a total stranger!” I slam the door behind me. The secretary glares at me as I walk out the big glass doors to the gleaming bank of elevators, but even though I’ve managed to take some of my power back, I don’t exactly feel any better about the whole thing. Vindicated maybe, but not better. Not by a long shot.

I text Della. “911 EMERGENCY GIRLS NIGHT. MY PLACE.” I need some moral support, fried food, and three bottles of red. And not necessarily in that order.

25

LIZZIE

“YOU’RE NOT SAVING THIS, right?” Della says, pulling a bottle of wine from my rack and pulling the cork out before I can so much as protest. “That was my emergency rations!” I say, then pause. f*ck it, if this doesn’t qualify, I don’t know what does. “Go crazy,” I tell her, which is probably redundant, considering she’s already pouring herself a glass. Friends. Can’t live with them, can’t shoot them. “So what happened out there?” Melissa asks, sinking into the couch cushions. There’s junk food spread on the coffee table, the best the Ming Tsun Palace has to offer is on its way, and there’s three quarts of Ben and Jerry’s waiting in the freezer. When we go hard, we go hard. Della pours me a glass of wine, too, and I plop down next to her on the couch. “A disaster,” I say miserably. “I mean, it was great, at first. We went to see Danforth at his ridiculously amazing Bel Air estate, and he ended up giving us all the pieces on loan. Then Jake surprised me with a hike in Griffith Park to check out where they shot the fight scene in Rebel Without a Cause.” “Oh my god,” Melissa sighs. “I love that movie so much. James Dean? Swoon.” “Then what happened?” Della demands. “Well, he took me out to dinner that night,” I say, my heart sinking just remembering. “To this steak house in Hollywood, and afterward I kind of . . . kissed him in the elevator? Actually, I pretty much attacked him.” I look down at my lap, my cheeks burning from the memory. “Living it up when you’re going down.” Della grins. “So you were all set to break the strike?” “No!” I protest, ignoring just how close I came. God, I remember how strong his hands were on my hips, the heat of his mouth on mine . . . and the feel of his co*ck,

pressing up against me. I clutch a cushion and gulp my wine. “We agreed, everything but. So then somehow we’re back in his room, and we’re hooking up, and it’s just so f*cking hot. You know, when you think you’re about to literally combust if you don’t have him RIGHT NOW? And then you called,” I sigh, coming back down to earth with a bump. “Sorry, babe.” Della nudges me. “But at least you didn’t sleep with him, right? That would have been worse.” “Maybe,” I sigh. “But honestly, I feel so sh*tty, it doesn’t make a difference. I can’t believe I actually liked him. He really had me fooled.” “What a snake,” Melissa mutters. “A rat, actually,” I agree. “A SUPER rat!” Della yells out and I manage a laugh. “What about you?” I ask. “Is Zach still on the strike, too?” Della sighs. “Yup. I’m trying everything: sexy lingerie, switching his DVDs with p*rn. I was even masturbating on the couch when he came home from work yesterday. He just walked right past me without saying a word.” The doorbell rings, and I go to pay the delivery guy. Since I’m in crisis mode here, I went crazy, and basically ordered everything. I’ll be eating plum duck for days, and I can’t WAIT. Melissa snorts when I bring the bags over. “Are you expecting the defense line of the Bulls over?” “Now that would take her mind off this stupid bounty,” Della cracks. I groan, and shove an eggroll in my mouth. “I’m never dating again.” “Not so fast.” Della looks thoughtful. “You know, this could be an opportunity.” She gets a glint in her eyes that usually signals the approach of a really bad idea. Or several of them. “I mean, you said you wanted romance, right? And all these guys are lining up to sweep you off your feet.” “And into bed,” I remind her. “For a fifty-thousand-dollar prize!” She waves away my objection. “So, you don’t have to f*ck them. Just play along! You get to reap all the benefits—moonlit walks, romantic dinners . . . And who knows, maybe you’ll wind up meeting someone great.” “She’s right,” Melissa agrees. “You’ve got all these guys wanting to date you right now! And Della’s right—you need to start looking at this as a blessing, not a curse.” “Have you even checked your messages lately?” Della asks, picking up my phone

from the coffee table and checking the screen. “253 voicemails? Oh my god, Lizzie!” she squeals. “I know,” I say sheepishly. “I just haven’t had time to listen to them all yet and—” “You’ve got time right now, though, right?” Della puts it on speaker before she hits play. “Hey sexy,” the first message begins in a deep baritone voice, and we all burst out laughing. “I got your number from Stu, remember, he’s your mom’s neighbor’s cousin’s workmate? Anyway, he said I should give you a call. I’d love to take you out sometime, show you the sights.” “Like your bedroom ceiling.” Della smirks. “Next!” Melissa yells. “Hi, Lizzie? This is Adam Silverstein, I guess you remember me as Mr. Silverstein, from fourth-period math.” “Oh my god, eww!” I cry. “He’s like fifty!” “Next!” We cycle through them all. There are messages from old boyfriends, high-school flames, guys from work, even. Guys I’ve never even met before, which worries me for a minute as I wonder how they got my number in the first place . . . “So who’s it gonna be?” Melissa asks, a mischievous look on her face. “You need to pick one.” “Says who?” I challenge. “Come on, you guys. This is like clicking randomly on some OK Cupid profile and expecting him to be a cute, hot, funny, solvent dude without major mommy issues or a shrine to his ex stashed in a bedroom closet. He’s a unicorn! He doesn’t exist.” “One more,” Melissa begs, and hits play on the next message. This time, a voice I actually recognize comes through the speakers. “Hey, Lizzie . . . it’s Alex. I don’t even know if you’ll remember me, but I recently moved to the city for work, and I saw on Facebook you’re living here now. Anyway, I’d love to reconnect. Give me a call sometime.” I sit bolt upright. “Alex McNally. Holy sh*t.” “Who’s Alex?” Della asks, walking over to the kitchen counter and pouring herself another glass of wine. “He’s this guy I knew in college,” I say, still in a state of disbelief. “He rode a motorcycle,” I say dreamily, “a Harley. And he kind of looked like Jordan Catalano

on My So-Called Life. You know—the floppy hair and the deep, soulful eyes.” “I loooooved Jordan Catalano,” Melissa moans, rolling her eyes so far up in her head so that for a second she resembles a zombie. “But can he read?” I laugh and toss a pillow at her. “Of course he can read!” “So what happened?” Della demands. “Why’d you guys break up?” “Well,” I say with a sigh. “We were never really together or anything. We just made out a few times after some dumb parties, but that was about it. I had a huge crush on him, though. I’m sure it was painfully obvious.” “Ding ding ding, we have a winner!” Della hands the phone to me. “I don’t know . . .” I pause. “Go for it!” Melissa urges me on. “I mean, what do you have to lose anyway?” “My self-respect, dignity, and precious moments in the limited timespan of life?” I stare at the phone in my hand warily, like it might self-destruct if I so much as push a button. “Seriously, Lizzie,” Della says, her hands on her hips. “What are you waiting for? Call him back! This is your chance to actually get what you want! Unlike the rest of us. And if you fall for one of these guys, I might even get my husband back.” And as much as I want to disagree, I know she’s right. After all, if not now, when? There’s no better time to start living on the edge than after your heart gets completely pulverized. Bring it on, I think as I find his message and hit the call back button, clearing my throat and taking a deep breath, summoning all of my courage as the phone begins to ring. “Hi, Alex, it’s Lizzie. I’d love to go out with you.”

26

LIZZIE

ALEX ARRANGES to meet me in the middle of Central Park at lunch the next day, which is thankfully enough time for me to blow-dry my hair, slap on a home facial, and go get Vilma the evil witch of the West Village to wax me into shape again. Still, as I loiter by the ice-cream truck in my best vintage sundress, I’m wondering if I should just turn around and run. I mean, could I really have a fun date when I know the only reason he called is because of the stupid bounty? “Lizzie?” I turn. Hello. “Alex, hi.” “God, it’s been so long. What, five, six years?” “Don’t, you’ll make me feel old!” I groan, and he laughs. Just like that, the years slip away, and I relax again. He kisses me on the cheek. He’s just as gorgeous as I remember, with those penetrating green eyes I used to lie in my tiny dorm bed and dream about. He’s cut his dark hair that used to messily hit just at his collarbone, but his beat-up leather jacket is still intact—though he turns up on foot, not on a Harley, which momentarily shatters my biker chick fantasies of the two of us riding off into the sunset. “I sold that a while ago,” he tells me, as we walk towards the Sheep Meadow, a flat expanse of grass where sunbathers lie out on towels clad in tiny bikinis and kids play Frisbee in the warm light. “When I was teaching English overseas. Thailand. Best experience of my life,” he adds. Take that, Jake, I silently cheer. Smart and self-sacrificing. “What are you up to now?” I ask. The smell of hot dogs and popcorn is in the air, and I feel optimistic for what feels like the first time in just about forever. Even the birds are singing high up in the trees overhead, which I take as some kind of good omen.

“I’m an environmental lawyer, of all things, but I’m thinking of maybe someday starting a charter school in the Bronx.” “Seriously?” I ask, impressed, and he nods. “Wow. That’s really admirable.” “I think it’s important to give back,” he says, looking sincere. “Oh, definitely!” I agree. “You haven’t changed, you know,” he says with a smile, giving me a sidelong look. “Still as pretty as ever.” I flush at the compliment and try to maintain my composure. “Thanks,” I say, as we continue to walk across the meadow. At the far end I see a brightly colored hotair balloon, with a guy tinkering with the fastenings. “Great.” Alex waves over. “We’re all ready to go.” My mouth falls open. “Is that for us?” He smiles again, reaching down and taking my hand. “You game?” he asks. Eek. So, it’s pretty well established at this point that I’m not great with heights. In fact, next to flying on a plane, a hot-air balloon ride is basically my worst nightmare. But he’s gone through a lot of trouble to arrange this, obviously, and it is super romantic, that’s for sure. If I just don’t look down, I’m sure I’ll be fine, right? Famous last words. But before I can answer him, my phone starts buzzing in my bag, and when I see who it is, my stomach dips. Jake’s name is lit up on the screen. I don’t know how he does it—it’s like he has some secret radar that lets him know when I’m about to have a good time, just so he can come along and ruin it. “I’m so sorry,” I say to Alex apologetically. “I have to take this—it’s work.” “No problem,” he says. “I’ll make sure we’re all set to go.” “Hey, it’s me,” Jake says when I finally pick up. “What did I tell you?” I demand, annoyed that he’s finding a way to sneak back into my thoughts again. “You don’t speak to me unless it’s a super-massive emergency. I’m hanging up—” “Wait!” he says quickly. “Don’t! It’s about work.” I can hear what sounds like a rustling of paper on his end. “I’ve got the shipping info for the pieces from Danforth’s collection.” “We could’ve talked about this at the office,” I point out, watching as Alex strikes up a conversation with the guy who’s untying the ropes of the balloon. “I was there

all day.” “Look, Lizzie.” I hear him sigh. “I’m really sorry, and I can understand if you’re angry with me.” “I’m not angry,” I say, trying to sound upbeat. “I mean, I should really be thanking you for opening up my eyes to this amazing opportunity. I have guys lining up to date me. I’m actually on one right now!” There’s a pause. “But, Lizzie, you can’t be serious.” Jake sounds pissed. “You know they only want one thing.” “Like you can judge,” I snap back. “So, I decided what the hell. I’m finally dating like I always wanted to! In fact, I’m about to get into a hot-air balloon right now. So I really do have to go.” “A hot-air balloon?” Jake laughs. “Lizzie, you can’t even—” “And then I have another date after this one,” I say triumphantly, walking towards Alex with a smile. “So I can’t talk. Bye!” I say before he can respond, pushing the END button on my phone and turning it off completely. NEXT THING I KNOW, I’m standing in the wicker basket of the hot-air balloon, trying not to lose my sh*t. The flames above turn off and on as the balloon begins to lift off the ground. Alex grabs a bottle of champagne from the guy operating the ride, and he opens it with a flourish, the popping of the cork drowned out by the hiss of the flames above. He pours the champagne into two glasses and hands me one. “To reconnecting,” he says warmly, clinking his glass on mine. “Uh huh.” I take a sip. I try to concentrate on the bubbles tickling my nose and the taste of the champagne, but there’s a familiar feeling in my stomach, the rolling and tumbling that happens any time I’m up in the sky instead of down on the ground where I belong, and I take a deep breath, trying to look anywhere but over the side of the basket or up into the huge expanse of blue sky that suddenly seems to be all around us. “So, tell me more about what you’ve been up to since college,” Alex asks, leaning over the side of the basket in a way that makes me want to grab him by his belt loops and pull him back to safety. A wave of nausea comes over me, and I take another quick sip of champagne, willing my stomach to settle down. “Well.” I try to smile through my queasiness. “After college I worked a couple of retail jobs before I got my break at the Met.” I try not to notice that we’re now looking down on the treetops, and all I can think about is the fact that if this

balloon crashes, I’ll likely be impaled on a collection of extremely spiky branches. I pull some air into my lungs and try to smile again through a sudden wave of nausea, my stomach lurching violently. “And then I—” I stop mid-sentence and close my eyes for a second, reaching out for the side of the basket to steady myself. “Hey,” Alex asks. “Are you okay?” “Uh huh!” I squeak, tasting bile in the back of my throat. Oh, no. Not now. You will NOT vomit all over this nice young socially-conscious man. Swallow it! Swallow it all! “It can get a little bumpy.” Alex smiles. “But don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. When I was in Thailand, I learned how to kite-surf, this is just like it. You just bounce, and roll, and sway with the breeze . . .” Oh sh*t! The unthinkable happens: the contents of my stomach come rushing up my throat. I push Alex away, turn around and vomit over the edge of the basket, trying not to open my eyes and look down as I puke—probably all over the scantily clad sunbathers in the park. I straighten up with a groan—in time to see Alex’s horrified expression. Date over.

27

JAKE

I FIGURED Lizzie might need some time to cool off, so I decide to give her some space. But over the next week, it’s like some dating tsunami hit the office. Every day, I’m forced to watch Lizzie get picked up for lunch or dinner by a procession of guys, each more good-looking than the next. She walks through the hallways giggling and whispering into her phone, and her office could probably double as a Hallmark factory, with all the huge bouquets that arrive. They’re scattered on every available surface—along with hampers of champagne and French cheeses and boxes of pink frosted cupcakes. Worst of all, she seems happy—really happy. Which should make me happy for her. But I’m not. In fact, every time I see her walking out the door with one of these guys, or unwrapping yet another box of Godiva chocolates with a dreamy smile, I want to punch something. But there’s no use getting mad since it’s nobody’s fault but mine. Which somehow, pisses me off more than anything else. Looking back on it, I definitely should’ve told her about the bounty from the beginning. But even though I technically had nothing to do with the damn thing, I know that she’ll never forgive me. Who am I kidding? She barely even looks at me anymore. And to make matters worse, every time I see her get up from her desk in one of those sundresses she wears that show off every one of her lush, gorgeous curves, all I can think about is that night in the hotel, how f*cking incredible it felt to make her scream my name—and how hard I came all over that amazing body. I want her again. f*ck, I need her. But she looks at me like dog sh*t she’s scraped off her shoe, and she shows no sign of forgetting any time soon. Monday morning, we’ve got a staff meeting, so I head to Morgan’s office. The whole team is there, gathered around the table, but Lizzie barely glances my way. “We’re two weeks out from the opening,” Lizzie starts, looking down at her notes on her iPad. “I’m happy to report that we’re right on track. We’ve secured all of the major pieces, with the exception of the necklace from Bring Me the Stars.” She

looks up at me, acknowledging my existence for the first time. “But Jake is working on that.” I nod in agreement, not wanting to interrupt. “The events team has been reaching out to as many stars as possible for the gala. I’ll let them fill you in, but we did just hear today that Marlena Stafford has RSVP’d yes!” “THE Marlena Stafford?” a guy in Asian Arts who’s wearing an actual ascot around his neck blurts out. “Movie star Marlena Stafford? Been in a hundred or so amazing films Marlena Stafford?” he says in awe. “The very same.” Lizzie beams, and I’m surprised she doesn’t burst out in a tap dance. “She was just eight years old when she played Janey in Bring Me the Stars. She’s the only living cast member, and she’s been a recluse these past years, but she’s agreed to make an exception for the opening to do some press—a few photos and interviews. She still loves the film and she wants to help support its legacy.” “This is all very impressive, Lizzie,” Morgan says, staring at Lizzie with an expression not unlike actual respect. “Now,” she begins again, walking over to the far end of the room and switching the lights off, projecting a list on the screen at the front of the room. “Let’s discuss the checklist for the gala . . .” AFTER THE MEETING, I walk over to Lizzie, who’s fielding congratulations from her co-workers, chattering happily. “Good job getting Marlena,” I say, feeling a little hurt that I had to find out at the meeting with everyone else. “You didn’t tell me.” “Yeah, sorry!” she says in a chipper voice, looking up and blinking at me from behind her glasses like I’m a stranger. “I’ve got a lot going on—I’m juggling a ton right now. And speaking of which . . .” She looks down at her watch. “I have to go —I’ve got a lunch date!” “What’s it today?” I ask, raising an eyebrow. “Flying lessons?” “Ha!” she laughs breezily, slinging her overstuffed bag over one shoulder. “Thankfully, no. Just a simple picnic in the park.” “Sounds nice,” I say grudgingly as Simon from acquisitions comes waltzing in, his face breaking into a huge grin at the sight of her. Simon is decent enough, I guess, but so tweedy and correct that he’ll probably chastise her for eating with her hands. “You ready, Lizzie?” he asks, holding up a large bag from Dean and Deluca, a baguette sticking out of the top.

“You bet!” she says happily, hustling out of the room, and the minute she’s gone the room is so quiet—too quiet. I finish up and head home, but I can’t help imagining them together on a patch of grass somewhere in the park, eating bread and cheese and looking into each other’s eyes. I can feel the jealousy rising up in my chest, and every time it does, I try to shove it back down. I have no reason to feel this possessive. So we hooked up a few times? It’s not like we were dating or anything—not even close. But f*ck all these guys, flocking around her when they only want one thing. Sure, she wants romance, but she’s going about it all wrong. Is this Simon really going to get all her movie references and laugh at her jokes? Can he appreciate her sarcasm? Does he even know she gets hungry and headachy if she goes too long without a snack? There’s no way. But what does it matter? She’s made it clear, I broke her trust. The problem is, I have no idea how to win it back again. I sit down at my desk and open my laptop and try to work. There’s a guy in England who collects mint-condition My Little Ponies from the 1990s and is willing to pay a pretty penny for me to find Majesty’s Dream Castle set, so I spend the evening making calls. But I can’t stop thinking about Lizzie sprawled in the grass, the sunlight beaming down on her face while that Simon guy feeds her grapes. Which is just dumb, because she’d prefer chocolate-covered pretzels from that cart on Fifth Avenue any day. Finally, I give up on the Dream Castle and dial her number instead. After a few rings, she picks up, her voice barely above a whisper. “Hey,” she croaks. “What happened to you?” I ask. “I don’t know . . .” Her voice trails off weakly for a moment before returning. “It was something I ate. I think I have food poisoning.” “From the picnic?” I ask. “The picnic . . . and then the carousel ride,” she moans. “The horses kept going up and down. I’ve been sick for hours.” “Oh, baby,” I say sympathetically. “Is he still with you?” “Are you kidding?” She laughs, which quickly turns into a moan. “No. I left him in the park and puked the entire way home. Thank god for trashcans. And purses.”

“I’m coming over,” I say, grabbing my jacket and heading for the door. “Jake, I’m fine!” She protests. “There’s no need to—” But I’ve already hung up. WHEN I GET to her place, the door is cracked open a bit, so I walk right in. “Lizzie?” I call. “In here.” I hear a weak voice call out from the bathroom, and when I push the door open, she’s lying on the bathroom floor in a blue robe. She’s curled into the fetal position, her face the color of the white tile below her. “Don’t look at me,” she says weakly. “I have vomit on my face.” I kneel down and push the hair back from her face. “So, how was your date?” I ask. “Couldn’t stomach him?” She laughs, holding her stomach with both hands. “Don’t,” she gasps, “it hurts too much.” “Can you get up?” I ask, then cut to the chase and lift her into my arms. I can tell she’s sick because she doesn’t even protest as I carry her over to her couch and set her gently down. “What are you doing?” she asks, as I rifle through her drawers. I find a pair of purple PJs and pull them out of a drawer triumphantly, waving them like a flag. “Do you need help getting these on?” “I can do it,” she says, moving slowly and standing up and wavering for a second like the ground is about to tilt at any moment. “Just hold onto my arm and I’ll close my eyes,” I say, putting a hand over my heart. “Scout’s honor.” “Now I’m supposed to believe that you were actually a Boy Scout back in the day?” She laughs and almost falls over. I reach to steady her. “There’s a lot about me you don’t know.” I close my eyes and listen to the rustling of clothes as she takes off her bathrobe and puts the pajamas on—trying not to picture her naked right now. Or look. I swear, I don’t look for long. “Okay, I’m decent.”

I open my eyes. “Are those . . . Barney pajamas?” I ask. “They were a gift! From Della.” Lizzie sinks onto the couch and lies back with a groan. I fetch her a glass of water and some Saltine crackers, then place a wastebasket with in easy reach. The TV is on, paused on the title credits for Bring Me the Stars. “Big night planned, huh?” “Don’t let me keep you.” Lizzie pouts, and I feel bad for teasing her when she clearly feels like death. “Let’s watch it,” I say, reaching for the remote. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the whole thing from start to finish.” “What’s wrong with you?” she groans, shoving her face into the pillow. “It’s only the greatest movie of all time.” “Well, I guess that settles it then.” I hit play and the credits roll onscreen. I settle back onto the couch beside her, and Lizzie shifts so her legs are resting in my lap. “Tell me if you need to go vomit again.” “God, no, I don’t think I have anything left,” Lizzie says, and takes a careful sip of water. The film begins, Marlena’s plucky, impish face lighting up the screen. It’s one of those classic romances, with star-crossed lovers and men in great suits, and I’m surprised to get caught up in the action. I look over at Lizzie. She’s fast asleep, snoring slightly with these muffled little noises. Damn, she’s cute when she’s not biting my head off. Hell, she’s even hotter when she is. I sigh and turn the movie off. I gently lift her in my arms, her head nestling into my shoulder, and carry her over to the bed, setting her carefully on the mattress. She’s got some ugly quilted throw thing that I tuck around her, and she makes another noise as I smooth down her hair, a smile spreading across her face. “Horseradish,” she whispers, out like a light. “For the barn dance.” I have no idea what she’s dreaming, but I suddenly wish it was about me. f*ck, I wish I could slip under the covers with her and spend all night with her spooned tightly against me, listening to the sound of her sleep. I am so screwed. I turn out the light and quietly let myself out. The door’s on a latch, and I hear it

click behind me. She’s in there, and I’m out here. It feels wrong somehow, but there’s nothing I can do tonight. I walk home alone.

28

LIZZIE

WHEN I WAKE UP, for one blissful moment I don’t remember anything about last night. Then it all comes flooding back. The picnic. The carousel. The vomiting. And Jake Weston seeing me crumpled on the bathroom floor in my ratty old robe with regurgitated crab dip all over me. I groan and hide my face in the pillow. My hair stinks, and my mouth tastes absolutely disgusting. What must he think of me now? That I have seriously bad taste in dates? He already thought that, anyway. I force myself to sit up, and take a sip of water from the glass he left on my nightstand. I have to admit, it was really sweet of him to come take care of me, especially when I was such a puking wreck. He was kind . . . and patient . . . and sweet . . . Oh, no. I stop myself dead. You know who Jake is: a rat, remember? A super rat! Except rats don’t carry you to the couch, and feed you Saltines, and sit up with you through an old movie before tucking you into bed. And they sure don’t leave you with your embarrassing Barney’s pajamas intact and untouched. Anyone would think he was a . . . nice person? My phone rings, and I pick up to find his soothing voice on the other end of the line. “So, you’re alive then?” “Barely.” I flop back down in the pillows. “Thanks for coming over last night. I know I was a bit of a mess, but—” He laughs. “Don’t worry. The Exorcist is one of my favorite movies.” “Ugh,” I moan. “Was it that bad?” “Not at all,” he says with a laugh, clearly trying to make me feel better. “I’ve

definitely seen worse.” “Really? Where?” “College, for one. And remind me to tell you about the time I got food poisoning on a plane from Shanghai back to the U.S. You haven’t lived ’til you’ve curled yourself into the fetal position at 30,000 feet, I’m telling you.” “God,” I laugh, “that sounds horrible.” “It was,” he says. “So don’t feel bad about last night. By the way, what are you doing today? If you’re fully recovered I thought you might want to do something fun. No picnics—I promise.” “Like what?” I ask cautiously. Spending the day with Jake is A Very Bad Idea, but still, I can’t help feeling better at the thought. “You really don’t get the whole surprise thing, do you?” he says, and I can almost hear him grinning through the phone. My heart tumbles over itself in my chest, and I know I shouldn’t even be considering going—it’s playing with fire. Hell, it’s pouring gasoline on an already steady blaze, but before I can second-guess myself or change my mind, I agree. “Sure, why not?” “If I pick you up in an hour, will that give you enough time to scrub vomit off your face?” he asks, teasing. “Just for that, you’re bringing coffee.” I hang up and go fall into the shower, and by the time he picks me up outside my building an hour later, I’m feeling almost like my old self again. “You look better,” he says when I climb into the passenger seat. “It’s amazing what power jets and some dry toast can do for a girl.” I grin, and my smile only widens when I spy a venti coffee cup waiting in the cupholder. “Is this for me?” I scoop it up greedily and take a sip. “Vanilla latte!” I exclaim, surprised he got my order right. “I’m good for something.” Jake pulls out into traffic. “You’re really not telling me where we’re going?” I ask, trying not to notice how his casual blue T-shirt brings out his eyes . . . and hugs his shoulders with touchably soft fabric. He’s dressed down for the day, in dark wash jeans, and I have to admit, he looks good out of a suit. “You make it hard for a girl to dress for the occasion.” “You’ll do just fine.” Jake winks, and after a twenty-minute car ride where he refuses to tell me anything at all about what we’re doing, we pull up in front of a pretty little park on the Upper West Side. He turns off the engine. “Are you ready?” “Ready for what?” I ask, so curious that I can barely stand it. I get out, and look

dubiously around. “Why the scared face?” he laughs. “I don’t have a good history with parks. Between the food poisoning and the hot air balloon ride, I feel like I’m taking my life in my hands by just walking in there.” “I promise I’ll protect you,” Jake says, grabbing my hand and leading the way. When we enter through the wrought-iron gates, I see a small crowd of people at the far end of the lawn, playing what looks like bocce ball. The only reason I even know this is that my grandparents were Italian, and bocce is HUGE in Italy. Until he passed away a few years ago, my grandfather played with all of his old crony friends from his senior center every Sunday afternoon, rain or shine. All you need to know about bocce is that it’s right up there with watching paint dry, and that being said, it’s probably the most boring game in the universe. Worse yet, it looks like Jake is leading me right to it. “Wait,” I say, stopping and looking at him in confusion. “Is this some new and terrible hipster thing? Is bocce in again or something? Am I going to have to keep a straight face while you introduce me to men with terrible moustaches and unironic suspenders?” “Would I do that to you?” he laughs, steering me towards the crowd. “No, as a matter of fact, it’s a birthday gathering, for my grandpa.” “You have a grandpa?” I blink in surprise. “You never mentioned him before.” Jake shrugs. “You never asked.” We arrive at the group, a gathering of older people in their seventies and eighties, and some younger ones, too. “You made it!” An older gentleman decked out in a linen suit comes over. Jake hugs him warmly. “Hank, I want you to meet my . . . friend, Lizzie Ryan. We’re working together on that show at the Met I’ve told you about.” “A pleasure.” Hank vigorously shakes my hand. He shamelessly looks me up and down, then gives me a wink. “Jake’s mentioned you often, but he didn’t tell me you were such a knockout.” I’m starting to see where Jake gets his sense of style. And his charm. “Thanks,” I reply, smiling. “And happy birthday. It’s so great to meet you. Jake’s told me . . . well, nothing about you.” “Keeping me a deep, dark secret, eh?” Hank says, leaning in to elbow Jake. “Probably wise,” he adds. “He just can’t stand the competition.”

“Dream on, old man,” Jake says good-naturedly. “Now, Lizzie,” Hank says, taking me by the arm, “Come tell me all about yourself. How do you like my grandson?” “He . . . has his moments,” I say diplomatically, and he laughs. “That sounds about right.” “Lizzie!” I turn. It’s the couple I met with Jake way back when all this madness had just begun, the redhead and Jake’s cousin. “Julia?” I say, searching my memory. “That’s right.” She beams, hugging me. “And this is Nate.” “I remember, good to see you guys again.” “We’re just in town for the weekend,” Julia explains. “Until I can convince this guy to move to New York, that is.” She gives Nate a nudge, looking up at him like she wants to drag him off into the bushes and have her way with him. “Over my dead body,” Nate snorts, and she shoots me a smile. “That’s what he thinks.” “Isn’t she divine?” Hank asks, gazing adoringly at Julia. “Reminds me of a young Marilyn Monroe in her calendar days. I have no idea how he managed to win her over. None at all.” “I learned everything from you, Hank,” Nate grins. “You certainly did, my boy. Now this one?” Hank turns his attention to Jake. “When he was a boy, he was absolutely hopeless with the ladies!” “That’s right!” Nate smirks, slapping Jake on the shoulder. “No game at all. Remember when you had that crush on that girl Molly in the second grade and you used to ride your bike past her house every day until her mom told you to stop casing the joint?” Jake rolls his eyes, looking bashful. “So, who wants a game of bocce?” “Not now,” I grin. “This is just getting interesting.” “Nate, Grandpa?” Jake says with a warning note in his voice. “Let’s go get some beers and play.” Hank chuckles. “I can take a hint, son.” He pats Jake on the back, and we head over with them to the bowling lawn. There are seniors milling around, all dressed up for the occasion in straw hats and pastel-colored pantsuits that remind me of SweeTarts—or a nursery. Take your pick.

“How about you, Lizzie?” Jake says, arching his eyebrow in that co*cky stare of his that spells a challenge. “You ready for me to beat the pants off you?” Am I ever. Pants, and bra, and panties too. “You wish,” I say instead. “I’ve never actually played,” I admit. “But I watched my grandpa for years. He loved bocce.” “It’s easy.” Jake hands me one of the smaller balls. “You just take this ball—it’s called the jack—and throw it as far as you can. Just be sure to toss it underhand. Here, I’ll show you.” He moves behind me, leaning in close and resting his hands lightly on my hips. I can smell that cologne he wears, that sunny scent of citrus and sandalwood, can feel the heat of his body through his clothes, and I forget where I am momentarily. I even forget what I’m doing. All I can think about is kissing him. Which is crazy, considering I’m surrounded by geriatrics in leisure suits. “Are you ready?” he asks quietly, his voice low in my ear, sending a shiver down my spine. “As ever,” I say, more confidently than I actually feel. I try to ignore the tumbling feeling in my chest that happens whenever I’m around him now. I pull my arm back and open my fingers, the ball sailing through the air as I let go. “Not bad,” Jake smirks. “Now, let me show you how a real player gets it done.”

WE PLAY A FEW GAMES, until the cupcake table starts calling my name too loudly to resist. I leave Jake soundly whipping the competition, and go indulge myself with the finest frosting the city has to offer. “Oh my god, these are so good,” I have to moan aloud through a mouthful. Julia reaches in for some more champagne. “Where are they from? Oh yeah, Sugar Mama’s,” she reads from the box. “They’re the best. I send two dozen to my publisher every year for the holidays, and I’m not saying that’s why they promote me as lead title, but . . . you do the math.” I laugh. “Sneaky, I like it.” I take another bite, and survey the park. It’s a lovely spring day, and for the first time in weeks, I feel like I’m finally relaxing. My gaze goes to Jake, jostling with Hank to play his turn, and feel a weird . . . warmth bubbling through me. Not the red-hot heat I usually feel in his presence, like I’m about to combust, and/or tear my clothes off. No, this is something different. Almost . . . like feelings. Feelings.

f*ck, I’ve gone and caught cooties off the biggest playboy in New York! “So you and Jake seem to be friendlier these days,” Julia says like she’s reading my mind. “I hear you’ve been spending more time together.” “For work,” I reply, trying to sound casual. “The opening’s next week.” “Uh huh.” Julia’s smirk says she can see right through me. “Well, good luck. With work.” She winks. “I find that the most stubborn, arrogant projects can sometimes turn out to be the most rewarding.” “Like Nate?” I ask before I can stop myself. “Whoops, sorry.” She grins. “Like Nate. Believe it or not, when we met, we couldn’t stand each other. But I guess what they say is true, there’s a thin line between love and hate.” “Usually, it’s a barbed wire border,” I mutter. She laughs. “Guys like Nate and Jake like to talk the talk,” she says, leaning in confidentially. “But underneath all that charm, they’re actually decent guys. Surprising, I know. Anyway, it’s not my place,” she says, holding up her hands. “But don’t write him off just yet. I know he’s really sorry about that whole Dapper bounty thing.” And just like that, my warm fuzzies drift away. “I wish I could just forget that ever happened.” I scowl. “Or better yet, turn back the clock and forget my whole stupid strike.” “Hey, at least you can call it off anytime you like, right?” She hands me another cupcake. “I mean, nothing’s forcing you to go without.” Nate waves over from the bocce lawn, gesturing her over. “That’s my cue,” she grins, and goes to rejoin the group. But her words linger. Nothing’s stopping me . . . Except my pride. And reputation. And all the girls inspired not to settle because of me. I sigh. God, is there any way out of this mess? As long as this bounty is hanging over my, ahem, maidenhead, I can’t trust any guy to be interested for the right reasons. Especially Jake. I watch him, smiling and joking with his family. The more I get to know him, the more I can see, Julia’s right: there IS a decent guy lurking under his perfect vintage suits and smooth pick-up lines. He takes care of me when I’m sick, whisks me off for fun adventures, hell, he even knows to bring me coffee the way I like it. What more do you want in a man?

And then there’s the fact that the chemistry is so hot it’s like I’m wandering the desert in July. And Jake’s the cool glass of water with condensation dripping down the rim, begging for me to lick him— Wait a minute, where was I? Oh yeah, my impossible catch-22. f*cked if I do, f*cked if I don’t. Jake smiles at me from across the lawn, and it’s like a ray of sunshine. Cheesy similes? I really am in trouble now. Suddenly, I need to get out of here. I grab the nearest person and tell them to send my apologies, then I grab my stuff and bolt. But not before stuffing two more magical cupcakes in my purse, of course. I may be deep in the midst of emotional turmoil, but I still have my priorities, thank you very much. But as I head home, my feelings keep whirling—and no amount of frosting will fill the ache I have in my chest. Because the truth is, I can’t deny it anymore: I want to be with Jake. I want him so much, I can hardly stand it. And not just for a night, but the whole his-n-her-robes, annoying pet names, nights watching Netflix, and hungover Sunday brunches deal. The big kahuna. Love. Just the word breaks me out in a cold sweat. How can I be falling for a guy when I still can’t trust him? It’s like I’m teetering on the edge of a massive canyon, and one wrong step could send me crashing onto the rocks below. If I let myself fall, if I let these feelings go any further, then what happens if it turns out he only wanted me for the challenge? The thrill of the chase. But how can I know until it’s too late? A text buzzes in my pocket. Jake. Sorry you had to leave – don’t tell me the cupcakes got you. No, just work. Thanks! I tuck my phone away and sigh. One way or another, I need to figure out how to break this strike—without breaking my own damn heart.

29

LIZZIE

THE NEXT DAYS are a blur of last-minute errands, checking things off my endless to-do list, and basically running around like a lunatic. I manage to get most everything done before the big opening—mostly because Jake seems to be AWOL. I should be happy. I mean, this is what I wanted, right? Temptation keeping out of sight, out of mind. Except, Jake isn’t staying out of my head. Not at all. Every time I venture into the break room, my heart skitters in my chest, hoping against hope that when I look around, he’ll be there, grumbling about how horrible the coffee is. Or, better yet, holding out a box of doughnuts and flashing me that irresistible smile. By the time I trudge home on Thursday night, I’m more than ready for a glass of wine and my pajamas, and my Skype date to vent with Jess. “Hey, babe.” Jess appears on screen. The kids are nowhere in sight, and she’s got her LuluLemon pants and matching black crop top on, so she must be either on her way to yoga class or just getting back. “Namaste,” I greet her. “Are you enlightened yet, oh wise one?” “Not even close,” she sighs, sitting down at the kitchen table. “But I can, however, do a wicked crow pose now, so there’s that.” “Duly noted,” I say, and reach for that wine. “Wait, am I supposed to be impressed? Or even know what crow pose is?” “Maybe next time you visit you should go to yoga with me and find out.” “Hard pass,” I snort. “So where are the kids?” “Richard took them to a movie,” she says, relief clear on her face. “What about you? I can already tell it’s a tough day because you’re into the pinot.” “Just be glad I haven’t broken out the hard spirits yet. Things are a mess.” “With Jake?”

“With everything,” I moan, cradling the glass between my palms. “I mean, I’m totally crazy about him. I want to be with him for real. But I have no idea what his real agenda is. I mean, fifty thousand dollars? I’d f*ck me for that kind of money.” Jess laughs. “Does that count?” she asks. “I mean, if we got you a massive dild*, wouldn’t that technically be game over?” I give a hollow laugh. “I wish! But it’s this manly quest for glory, now. They’ve built it up so much that whoever gets to claim credit is basically going to become a f*cking legend.” “Don’t you mean a legend for f*cking?” Jess cracks, and I laugh for real this time. “But don’t you see, this means I can’t trust a single thing Jake says or does. I mean, how will I ever know if he would’ve gone after me on his own—without the strike? Maybe if it was anyone else, I could try and believe him. But think about it, Jess— his whole mission in life is getting the unobtainable—in work and in his personal life, too. And now I’m the shiny new toy that everyone wants!” “I’m sorry, babe.” She looks sympathetic. “Maybe I should take the risk, but I’ve seen enough movies to know how this ends,” I add darkly. “Me in a pink dress, alone at prom. Me with a bucket of pig’s blood on my head. Me—” “I get it!” she laughs. “You know, f*ck this sh*t. You should just sleep with some random dude. Break the strike and get it over with, then you can start clean with Jake.” “Yeah,” I laugh, “that sounds like a great idea, Sis. I’ll just sleep with some random guy I don’t care about so I’m free to sleep with the guy I actually like.” “Well, keep me posted,” she says. “Because you not f*cking men is about the most excitement going on in our sex lives right now.” I clear my throat. “Richard isn’t . . . ?” “Stress. Work. Either that or he’s f*cking Elaine in accounting,” Jess sighs. “You . . . don’t seem worried?” “Honestly, I’m so tired running around after the kids all day, I’m loving the break.” Jess raises her glass to me. “I hate you,” I tell her, only half-joking. “I’m going out of my mind right about now.” There’s a loud knock at my door, and I practically jump out of my chair, spilling my glass of wine over the table. “sh*t,” I curse. “Someone’s at the door,” I tell Jess, “do you think the Ming Na Palace is taking psychic orders?”

“I should go anyway,” Jess says. “I have exactly forty-two minutes to take a bath without a tiny person tugging on my sleeve. Good luck!” I sign off, and go open the door. If my favorite takeout place was sending random deliveries, that would be the best, but when I open my door, it’s not a double order of Pad Thai. Nope, it’s something far less appetizing. Todd. My scummy ex-boyfriend Todd, who I last saw waltzing his shiny new fiancée off to Tiffany’s. Horrible Todd who left me high and dry three years ago, after I helped put him through law school—just in case you’re keeping score, which I most definitely am. “Hey, Lizzie,” he says, flashing me a too-familiar smile. He looks like he came straight from the office, in one of his fussy suits and a paisley-print tie, his blond hair gelled back in a way that reminds me I had to wash my hands after sex. “Can I come in?” “Nope,” I say evenly, crossing my arms over my chest. “But the bigger question is: what the f*ck are you doing here?” “I think I made a mistake, Lizzie,” he says, smiling wider. “I should’ve never let you go.” I snort. “It’s a little late for all this, don’t you think?” I say. “And what about Harmony?” “That’s over,” he says quickly, putting a hand on the doorjamb so I can’t close the door without maiming him. And standing there looking at him, I’m almost annoyed enough to want to try. “Sorry to hear that,” I say in a tone that makes it clear I’m anything but. “You were the only one who really supported me, Lizzie. The only one who believed in me,” he says earnestly, taking a step closer. “She never did.” “That’s not what you said when you dumped me,” I shoot back. “What was it? Oh yeah, I wasn’t ambitious enough. I didn’t understand your drive.” “Please, Lizzie,” Todd begs. “Please give me another chance to make things right between us.” After all this time, I have to say that it’s pretty gratifying to have Todd crawling back like this, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion it’s not my supportive belief that’s got him showing up on my doorstep like this. Not unless that’s what the kids are calling my puss* these days. “Listen, Todd,” I say brightly, “it’s way too late for all of this. I mean, it’s great

you’ve finally realized that I was the best thing that ever happened to you, and that deep down, you’re just a narcissistic douchewad who needs constant flattery and ego-stroking to make it through the day, but I’m not interested. Let’s face it, I deserve way better than you.” I start to close the door on him, fingers and all, but he sticks his foot in the way. “Wait, what about the strike?” he asks. “If you agree to break it with me, I’ll split the money with you. Eighty-twenty.” I knew it! “Goodbye, Todd,” I say, shoving him out the door. “Sixty-forty?” he yells. “We don’t even have to really do it! We can just tell people we did! That way you can just move on with your life and leave this whole strike thing behind.” “Oh, so this is all for my benefit? How generous.” I slam the door shut and wait until I hear his footsteps head back down the stairs. What an arrogant, selfish, dickwad of a jerk! With a weirdly tempting idea . . . Nope. I shake it off. Despite what Jess says, it would be crazy to pretend I got laid, just to get this over with. I want Jake—and only Jake. But this way, I’d get to see if he really wants me for me, or just as a prize . . . Ugh! I slide to the floor and grab the phone. “Hello, Ming Na Palace? I need to place an order. A big one.” Something tells me it’s going to be a long, sexually-frustrated night.

30

LIZZIE

OVER THE NEXT WEEK, I run around like a lunatic getting everything ready for the exhibition, racing all over town to pick up last minute items, and double and triplechecking everything. I’ve only been sleeping three or four hours a night, tops, and by the time the gala approaches, I’m teetering on the brink of exhaustion, walking around like a caffeine-fueled zombie—a cute, caffeine-fueled zombie with a superb sense of style, I might add, but a zombie nonetheless. And now it’s finally opening night. I can’t believe it’s here already, but in a way it also seems like I’ve been waiting forever for it to arrive. The gallery space is amazing, and I can’t stop the waves of nervous excitement flooding my body as I walk the floor for a hundredth time. The gala event will be held in the Great Hall, but guests will also be free to wander the exhibit here. “What are you still doing here?” Skye finds me repositioning the information cards again. Morgan roped her into overseeing the gala setup and catering arrangements. “I told you, it’s perfect. Don’t screw it up now!” “Okay, okay!” I say, still scanning the space. “But what if we’re forgetting something?” “We’re not. You’ve done an amazing job!” Skye insists. “Just look at this place!” I stop looking for flaws for a minute and just take it all in—the vintage gowns, the glittering deco jewelry in glass cases, the original print of Casablanca playing on a loop, projected against the back wall. But this is about more than just vintage movie posters and props: there are viewing booths with social history footage from the era, giving context to the on-screen gems, behind-the-scenes interviews and footage, too. It’s everything I hoped, and more. “Now go home!” Skye orders. “Unless you’re planning on wowing our guests in jeans and a blazer. “Okay,” I say reluctantly, heading for the exit. “But call me if you need anything?”

“We won’t.” Skye says firmly. “You go and get ready.” She shoos me away with her French-manicured hand like I’m some sort of pesky insect. “I’ve got this.” WHEN I GET HOME, there’s a giant white box leaning against my apartment door, tied with a huge red bow. I bring it inside, and when I tear off the wrapping and wade through what feels like miles of carefully-folded tissue paper, I find a card on thick, embossed paper that reads: Compliments of Jake Weston. Pick you up at eight. My heart can’t help skipping. Underneath all that tissue paper, I find a gorgeous red satin vintage Valentino gown—with matching red stiletto sandals and an intricately beaded evening bag. Be still, my heart! I move to the mirror, holding the heavy, slick material of the dress up against my body. Holy sh*t, it looks exactly my size—almost as if it was made for me and me alone. I lay the dress back on the bed carefully, reverently, and make my way to the shower, buzzing with excitement now. What does this mean? Is he back from his disappearing act? And is pulling a Pretty Woman supposed to make up for the bounty, and not telling me? Yes. I try to get my nerves under control. Get it together! It’s going to take more than vintage haute couture to woo me, but when I hear a knock at the door an hour later, it feels like there’s a whole meadow full of butterflies taking up residence in my stomach. I take one last look in the mirror, then go open the door. f*ck me now. Jake stands on my doorstep in a tux, and he looks so far beyond perfect, it’s not even fair. But even better than how drop-dead sexy he is, is the way he’s looking at me. Like I’m the most precious exhibit of all. “Wow,” he breathes, looking me up and down. “You look incredible.” “Thank you.” I flush. “This dress is amazing.” I twirl around to show it off. “After you.” He gestures, and I grab my silk wrap and the purse and step out into the hallway. He rests his hand on my back, walking to the stairs, and god, if my whole body doesn’t go up in flames again just from one little touch.

I missed him. “So where have you been?” I ask, trying to sound casual. “I’ve barely seen you this week.” “Just working on a few last-minute surprises,” he says with a mysterious smile. “For the opening?” I demand, suddenly panicked. “Why? What? Is something wrong?” “No!” Jake laughs. “Relax, everything is perfect at the exhibit.” “Are you sure?” I gulp a breath. “God, don’t scare me like that. My whole career is riding on this going off without a hitch.” “And it will.” Jake gives me a smile that could soothe a rabid beast. “I promise. All you have to do tonight is relax and enjoy yourself.” I’VE BEEN to plenty of fancy parties at the Met—perks of the job—but there’s nothing like walking into that incredible lobby and seeing it packed with people because of an exhibit I’ve helped curate. “It’s amazing!” Skye squeals, running up to us. Everyone seems to have embraced the Classic Hollywood theme, and she’s dressed in an ice-blue sheath dress that makes her look like she just stepped off the MGM lot. “The Times is here, and The Washington Post, and Entertainment Tonight is even covering the red carpet because of all the star power here! It’s a hit! You guys have done an awesome job! Everyone’s talking about how brilliant you two are and I’m just so exci—” “Breathe, Skye,” I laugh. “No time! I have to make sure the cake has arrived! It was supposed to be here an hour ago . . .” she mutters, her voice trailing off as Morgan approaches, parting the sea of the crowd and swishing across the floor in a long, black gown so tight that I’d be surprised if she’s eaten more than a crust of bread in the last three weeks. “Bravo!” Morgan smiles, her lips painted a shimmering red, and diamonds glittering at her ears and throat. “You two really pulled it off! I have to admit, I didn’t expect a turnout like this. Not for such a minor exhibit,” she adds, unable to give a compliment that isn’t laced with poison. “Jake, bravo.” “Not at all,” he says, again pushing me forwards. “This is all Lizzie’s hard work—I really can’t take credit for any of it. It’s her vision. I helped execute it, of course, but she’s the one you should be congratulating.” Morgan raises an eyebrow. “Well, Lizzie, it seems you’ve outdone yourself. Although, I noticed the Bring Me the Stars section is still minus the necklace. I do

hate to leave a promise unfulfilled.” “That’s my fault,” Jake says smoothly. “I was certain I had a source, but he fell through at the last minute.” “Oh. Well, we’ll just have to settle.” Morgan catches sight of someone behind us, and smiles for perhaps the first time since 1996. “Darling!” she calls, beckoning, before turning back to us with a smug grin. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet. This is Bradley,” she purrs, introducing a distinguished man in his mid-fifties with a luxuriant head of salt-and-pepper hair. “My fiancé.” She thrusts her hand in my face to show off the giant, princess-cut diamond flanked by two chunky emeralds. “It worked!” she leans in to whisper. “The strike worked! I starved him out like a general on the battlefield. He admitted defeat and asked me last night!” “Wow.” I blink. ““I’m so happy for you both. That’s . . . the start of a beautiful relationship!” Morgan starts cooing over the wedding plans for the Plaza and dress designs, and soon there’s a group of well-wishers gathered around. Jake leans closer to me. “There are a few people I should say hello to,” he murmurs. He’s so close that if I wanted, I could reach up and kiss him. The thought makes me shiver, and he frowns. “Are you cold?” “No, I’m fine.” I smile. “You’re right. We should circulate.” “Meet you by the champagne fountain in twenty?” “Deal.” I watch him circle the room, shaking hands and charming donors and patrons of the museum alike. He can turn it on in an instant, but I’ve seen the other side to him, too. As I watch him talking to a reporter, he catches my eye for a moment, giving me a private wink across the room. I feel it in my whole body, and in that moment I know—the way you know the way a movie will end long before the credits roll—that the strike is history. I can’t deny it any longer, and I don’t want to: I’m crazy about this guy, and tonight I’m going to make it official. I’m going to break the strike and sleep with Jake Weston. And god, it won’t be a moment too soon! I rush off to the bathroom to freshen my makeup. My reflection in the mirror is flushed and hopeful, all the crazy conflict of the past few months finally behind me. I realize that I don’t need a damn thing—not more eyeliner or lipstick—I don’t even want to powder down this glow that looks like it’s bubbling up from under my

skin. I give the mirror a determined smile before walking back out into the gallery. The sooner I find Jake, then do the requisite mingling, the quicker we can get out of here. Because after all this time, I can’t wait any longer—and I don’t want to. I walk back in and sweep the room, searching for Jake. There. He’s up against the far wall, talking to Dylan, Hollywood douchebag extraordinaire? Ugh. Still, he’s a VIP guest, so I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to go play nice. I mean, what’s five minutes of graciousness if I get to have ridiculously hot sex later tonight? The crowd is thick around them, and I have to duck under a waiter to get past, but just as I’m approaching, Dylan’s voice stops me short. “I’ve gotta hand it to you, bro,” he says. “You really had this stuff figured out. I mean, playing the long game? That’s brilliant. You kept her dangling for months and now you’ve got her practically begging for it!” My heart freezes. I stay back, out of sight behind a statue, willing Jake to tell him where to shove it. “So what are you going to spend the money on?” Dylan continues. “Another vintage car? That Aston Martin of yours is pretty sweet.” “Oh, don’t worry—I’ve got something special in mind,” Jake’s reply comes, and the casual tone in his voice cuts through me like a hot knife. Laced with poison. I can’t believe it. Except, I can. This is what I was afraid of. But being proven right is no consolation, not with my heart breaking in my chest. I back away before either of them can catch sight of me, the sound of their laughter ringing in my ears. I duck into the hallway, a wave of nausea almost sending me to my knees. Just breathe. I can’t deny what I’ve just heard, but I don’t want to believe it either: Jake, the romance—all of it. It was never about me to begin with. Or us. He was in it for the money all along.

31

LIZZIE

I WANDER the gallery on autopilot for the rest of the night, shaking hands in a daze and somehow fielding questions from everyone about the exhibit. I manage to nod and smile, even though I just want to get the hell out of there as fast as I can, to somewhere I can break down properly, far away from the gallery—and Jake. But I can’t—I’m responsible for the gala, the show, all of it. So I suck it up and circulate, putting my best face forward and hoping that no one can tell that I’m literally dying inside as I make meaningless chitchat about Greta Garbo’s gown from Grand Hotel. I’m pretending to be on cloud nine when all the while I’m counting the minutes until I can make my escape. This should be one of the happiest nights of my life—and I’m spending it wishing I were anywhere else. Just as I’m finishing up with one of the big-shot donors, Jake approaches. Just the sight of him hurts me deep inside, and I turn away, hoping he’ll take the hint and leave me alone. But he doesn’t. He strides right up to me like nothing’s wrong and tugs me to the dance floor. “Stop,” I hiss under my breath. “What do you think you’re doing?” “Dancing with my best girl, I hope,” he grins. “I’m not really in the mood right now.” I try to pull away without being conspicuous, but when I look around, I realize that everyone is watching us—I mean, him. Damn. Why does he always bring the spotlight with him? “One dance,” he insists, and I have no choice but to let him pull me onto the floor. Jake pulls me close, and my body clearly hasn’t gotten the memo on betrayal and heartbreak, because I melt into him like I was meant to fit in his arms. Dammit, it feels too good to be holding him like this. But it was a lie, it was all just a lie. Jake leans closer, murmuring in my ear. “Now that the show is behind us, I was

thinking we could take a break—go upstate for a weekend. Hank’s been telling me about this little bed and breakfast in the Hudson Valley. I’m not going to ask what kind of shenanigans he got up to there in his youth, but it sounds pretty fun. What do you think, want to check it out?” He pulls back to smile at me, and looking into his eyes, something in me snaps. I suddenly realize what I have to do. “That sounds great,” I force a smile. “Now that the strike is over, we can do whatever we want.” Jake stops, looking confused. He’s standing still even though the music is still playing and couples are twirling around us like we’re part of the exhibit ourselves, encased behind a wall of glass. “Over? What do you mean it’s over?” “Just what I said,” I say breezily. “Todd came by the other night—you remember Todd, my ex boyfriend?” Jake nods wordlessly, and even though I know there’s no stopping now, I start to feel sick again, adrenaline coursing through my veins so fast that my head is practically spinning. “Well, we were catching up, one thing led to another . . .” I continue, my voice drifting off. “You know how it goes. You should let Miles know—I’m sure he’ll want to post it on the site.” “I don’t understand.” Jake shakes his head slowly, like the words didn’t get through. “I slept with him,” I lie, hating every minute of this—and hating the shock and betrayal in Jake’s eyes. “But why should it matter to you, anyway?” I ask. “You never cared about the bounty, right?” A part of me is still holding out some desperate hope that he’ll agree the bounty means nothing, and then sweep me into his arms the way the heroes do in all those movies I love. But Jake’s face darkens, and he steps back, like he can’t bear to be touching me any more. “Of course it matters to me! I thought this meant something to you, I thought we were—” “What?” I demand. “What were we to you? If you were really with me for me, because you actually liked me, not for the stupid contest, then losing the bounty shouldn’t matter to you!” “I never gave a f*ck about the bounty!” Jake’s voice rises. “What I care about is the fact that you slept with someone else!” “It didn’t mean anything!” I fire back. “You of all people should understand that! It

was just sex!” “Just sex?” Jake says incredulously. “Is that what you think I’m all about? Is that all you think this was?” “You can drop the act. I heard you talking to Dylan just now,” I tell him, dripping with scorn. “Boasting about what you’re going to buy with your winnings.” “Then you didn’t hear the whole conversation,” Jake says grimly. “The part where I told him to f*ck off, because I didn’t give a damn about the bounty, and IF I won, if we wound up having a future together, then I would give all the money to a charity —of your choosing.” I search his face, but he looks sincere. My heart sinks. Did I have this all wrong? Did I just f*ck everything up for good? “But you’ve made it clear that’s not going to happen,” Jake continues. “Since you don’t give a damn about me, as you made perfectly clear when you f*cked someone else.” “No!” I say, getting more confused. “I just mean that it didn’t matter! You should understand that! What matters is everything else we share!” “I can’t believe this,” Jake mutters under his breath. I reach out for his hand, but he jerks away from my touch, and when I look up I realize that not only has the music stopped, but the room has fallen silent—except for the whispers that buzz all around. “Right now I don’t think we share anything at all,” Jake says, his voice cold and unforgiving. And before I can say anything at all, he turns on his heel and storms off. I’m left standing frozen in the middle of the room. I can feel the eyes of the crowd on me, but I don’t care. All that matters is that it’s over. Somehow, in the space of only a few minutes, and with a few poorly chosen words, I’ve somehow managed to ruin everything I’ve ever wanted. Jake wasn’t the enemy. It was myself, all along. Tears sting the back of my throat, but I can’t break down. Not here. Picking up my skirt, I do the only thing I can think of: I flee. Out of the gala, down the front steps, running away from the scene of the crime. If this was a movie, the camera would be panning up now, fading into the city lights. But I can’t escape the pain so easily. The gorgeous dress doesn’t make a difference, or the pretty props. There’s no director yelling “cut,” or a script to tell me what the hell I’m going to do next. There’s just me and my broken heart. Alone again. Without him.

32

JAKE

WHAT DO you do when the girl you’re crazy about goes and f*cks someone else? For me, the answer is whiskey and bad action movies, but no matter how many times Vin Diesel drives a fast car and punches someone in the name of family, the bullet wound in my chest doesn’t go away. Lizzie. And Douchebag Todd. I can’t believe it, except she told me herself. f*ck. “Swing, batta batta, swing!” Hank yells out, cupping his hand around his mouth. Our day at the ballpark is a standing date, but today I pretty much couldn’t care less. I don’t remember even feeling this bad when Isabel left me. And not even the sight of Hank yelling a blue streak at the field or flirting with the blond server who brought him a beer can snap me out of it. Someone get The Rock to come knock me out, because I need to be unconscious right now. “So what’s the score?” A brunette in a tight white t-shirt leans over from the seat behind us. “You tell me,” I say, distracted. “I wasn’t exactly paying attention,” she says, giving me a sultry look. “I was on my way to get a beer. Care to join me?” I look at her full lips, like two plump pillows just begging to be kissed, her chest straining against her T-shirt. I start to get up, then slump back down in my chair dejectedly. All I can think about is Lizzie’s blue eyes, the way she’d stare at me over those glasses she wears that drive me out of my mind. How she’d throw her head back and laugh with every cell in her entire body . . . “I think I’ll sit this one out,” I tell her. “Sorry.” “Suit yourself,” she answers with a shrug, shooting me a look like I’m clinically

insane before she makes her way up the risers. “Not your type?” Hank asks, sounding surprised. “What’s with you today? You’ve been moping since the moment you picked me up.” A vendor walks by with a tray of hot dogs and I can’t help remembering the way Lizzie devoured one with obvious relish on Santa Monica Boulevard back in LA—not to mention the way her nose wrinkled when I suggested adding ketchup. “That girl probably doesn’t even eat hot dogs,” I mutter to no one. Hank looks at me like I’m crazy, which I probably am, pining over some girl who’s made it clear she doesn’t want me. “Nothing,” I sigh, draining the last of my beer. “I was just thinking about how nice it was to go out with a woman who actually eats for a change.” “You’re referring to someone specific, I take it? Lizzie, perhaps?” he adds. “It’s not just that she eats . . . She eats mustard on her hot dogs, Hank. Mustard. I mean, she’s totally adamant about it, and not only that, she read me the riot act about my slavish devotion to ketchup. She’s got opinions on just about everything and I love it. I mean, just eating a hot dog with her is like watching some Anthony Bourdain show.” “Anthony who?” Hank asks. “Forget it. It’s not important,” I say, remembering that Hank’s relationship to pop culture hit a brick wall sometime during the Nixon administration. I mean, the guy still thinks that Rosemary Clooney is the famous one instead of George—and yet he still somehow manages to know the Mets’ batting order from front to back. Go figure. “So she likes mustard? So what? What are you getting at, Jake? That she’s spicy?” Hank laughs, slapping my knee. “The good ones always are, you know.” “It’s not just the mustard.” I try to explain why I can’t get her out of my head. “It’s the way she could give a sh*t about my Aston Martin because it’s nothing compared to a Triumph—which, if you weren’t aware, is a ridiculously niche car in a classic film that practically no one has ever heard of. Except for Lizzie, because she’s like an encyclopedia for that sh*t.” “So, you’re in love with her.” I scowl. “No,” I tell him, even though it feels weird to say the word. Hank smirks. “You know what I would do if I were you?” “I have a pretty good idea,” I say in a blasé tone of voice, because I do—I’ve heard it all before. “That there are other fish in the sea, and that girls like Lizzie are a dime

a dozen and I should just play the field. That about right?” “You’re not even in the ballpark, if you’ll pardon my pun.” He points one bony finger at my chest, his gold wedding ring glinting in the light. How have I never noticed before that he still wears it? “You go to that girl, and you tell her that you love her—because despite your weak denials, it’s obvious that you do. You go get Lizzie, and some hot dogs with mustard on them—or a goddamn Triumph—and you show her that you mean business. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stop being a fool and do whatever it takes to get that girl back.” I stare at him, surprised. Is this early-onset dementia talking? “I thought you didn’t believe in true love—or soulmates for that matter.” “Then you haven’t been paying attention all of these years.” Hank gives me a look. “Betty—your grandmother—was the best thing that ever happened to me. That woman gave me the happiest thirty years of my life—and I realized it just a little too late. Finding a partner, a real partner, is more important than your stupid pride.” “But . . . you never go on a second date!” I protest. “Because I know I’ll never find a love like the one I had with your grandmother again—no one’s that lucky twice—and I’m not even going to try. But you? You haven’t even tried! And if you let that girl get away, Jake, then you’re an even bigger fool than I thought.” Hank glares at me. I sit in my chair, trying to process his weirdly monogamous pep talk. “So what if you’re right?” I ask, still feeling that stubborn streak. “What if Lizzie is supposed to be with me?” The last time I saw her, I basically called her a cheap slu*t and left her in the middle of a dance floor. I know Lizzie, and even if I can get past the fact she f*cked Todd I know there’s no coming back from that, not after everything she’s been through. “Give the lady what she wants,” Hank says, like it should be obvious. “In my experience, it works every time.” “But what if I don’t know what that is?” I ask. “You’ll figure it out,” Hank says. “Now, are you going to let an old man enjoy the game without that moping look on your face?” He turns back to focus on the game, but I can’t think about anything but Lizzie. sh*t, just remembering her stricken expression at the gala fills me with guilt and shame. She was right, I don’t have any claim over her, and she was free to sleep with whoever she wanted. Even Todd.

As much as it makes me want to hire a contract killer to dispose of his body after a slow and painful death. f*ck. She was worried I only cared about sex—and I basically confirmed it by blowing up at her like that. I’ve basically dug my own grave here, so what the hell do I do now to convince her I really care? I may not have any idea what she really wants, but I do know one thing for sure— this calls for the big gesture, something straight out of the movies she loves so much. I need to come up with something that will sweep her off her feet, show her how much she really means to me—and make her forget the fact that she probably hates my guts right now. I just hope it’s not too late.

33

LIZZIE

“YOU STILL LOVE ME, don’t you, kitty?” The cat just blinks his sultry green eyes at me, then yawns, walking to the far end of the fire escape and sitting down in a puddle of silky white fur. He settles in to calmly lick his paws, looking past me like I’m not even there. Great. Even animals think I’m awful right now. “I screwed up,” I whisper to the cat, sitting on the windowsill. “I pushed away the best guy I’ve ever known, so I deserve what I get, right?” The cat just blinks at me again, purring so loudly that you can probably hear him six stories down on the street. I pull my bathrobe around me and sigh, taking a sip of the now-cold mug of jasmine tea I made a half hour ago and then promptly forgot about. I can hear the sound of people walking by, the shouts and laughter from groups and couples on the street, out having a good time, and it just makes me feel even sorrier for myself than I already am. It’s been a week since the gala, and that inconvenient jagged raw gaping wound in my chest isn’t going anywhere. If anything, it hurts even more now that I’ve had time to think about what happened —and just how much I’ve lost. Stop wallowing, I tell myself sternly. After all, you were doing just fine before Jake Weston came along. Right? “I still have my career, my apartment,” I count off, as the cat opens his eyes again, examining me dubiously. “The exhibit is a hit! Even Morgan respects me now. And it’s not like things were so bad the way they were before,” I say, trying to convince myself—not to mention the cat, the random dude across the way currently murdering a saxophone, even the spring night that’s getting chillier by the second. But the way my voice wavers let’s me know that I’m not fooling anybody. Nothing was better before—because before means without Jake. Sure. I’ll just go back to Tinder now, and bad dates . . . and men who don’t make my heart skip a beat just by walking into the room . . . or melt my panties with a single

gaze . . . or make me come my brains out, with just his very skilled fingers and tongue. I’m filled with a wave of regret, giving in again to the sadness that’s been following me around, tapping me on the shoulder every time I manage to forget for five minutes that I’ve ruined everything. If only I’d trusted him. If only I hadn’t jumped to conclusions. Maybe I would be with him right now, naked, instead of settling in for another night alone and lonely. Suddenly, a clatter comes from out in the alleyway. “Kitty?” I call, leaning out to check the poor cat hasn’t just plunged to its death. At first, I can’t see anything in the dark. Then a pair of headlights light up, dazzling me. There’s someone down there, too. “Hello?” “Lizzie, it’s me!” I nearly fall out of the window in shock. It’s Jake. In my alleyway, holding . . . “Is that a boombox?” I call down. He grins, illuminated in the headlights. “I know the eighties are too modern for you, but I figured it was the way to go.” He hits a button, and “In Your Eyes” starts to play, just like in Say Anything. A laugh bubbles up in my chest, full of gladness and pure relief. He’s here. He came back. I haven’t lost him. Have I? “What are you doing here?” I call down. “Just hear me out!” he yells up, then before I can stop him, he puts the boombox down and launches himself up the fire escape ladder. “Jake!” I cry, my heart leaping in fear. “That thing’s like a hundred years old.” “It’s fine,” he insists, hoisting up rung by rung until he can pull himself onto the platform outside my window. “See? All good.” The platform makes an ominous buckling noise, and I grab Jake and yank him inside before we can both plunge to our doom.

Inside, I catch my breath. I can’t believe that he’s here—and that he serenaded me at my window. “Listen,” I start, “we need to talk.” “I know.” Jake stops me. “That night at the gala, I was way out of line.” “No!” I protest. “It was me! I should’ve trusted you more—I was just worried you were only in it for the chase. I was scared that once you had me, you wouldn’t want me anymore.” “I’ll always want you, Lizzie.” I look up, stunned, and find him right there beside me. “I mean it,” he insists. “I don’t care about what happened with Todd. You’re right, it’s none of my business. I just want to be with you.” “You don’t care that I slept with him?” I search his face, unable to process what I’m hearing. “How can you not care?” “Well, sure,” he says, a smile twitching at the corners of his lips. “I’ve planned a dozen elaborate revenge scenarios against him. But, it doesn’t matter now. I understand why you needed to do it and get the whole strike out of the way. Everything that happened is in the past. I want a future with you, Lizzie. Our future.” He pulls me into his arms, pressing his lips to mine, and damn, nothing else matters. He wants me! I give in to the feel of his mouth, hard and hot and so good, I never want it to end. But even though I’m already backing him towards my bed and peeling off my robe, I know there’s something I have to say, even though I really, really don’t want to right now. “Jake.” I come up for air. “Since we’re laying everything on the table here . . .” “I was thinking the bed, but sure.” He grins. “No! I mean, yes, please, but I have to tell you something.” “Can it wait?” He kisses down my neck, dipping his tongue in the hollow of my collarbone, and god, this is a really bad moment to come clean. “I never slept with Todd.” I rip off the band-aid. His head jolts up. “What? But you said—” “I lied.” I wince. “I’m really sorry, I was just so hurt and angry after hearing you with Dylan.” “You were testing me.”

“Maybe?” I gulp. “But look, you’re here! And you just said, it’s all in the past!” I pause, nervous. “Can you forgive me?” “For not sleeping with Todd?” Jake grins. “Yeah, I think I can manage that.” He suddenly picks me up and swoops me over to the bed. We collapse back in a tumble, and I reach for him, hungry to have that hard body pressed against me, where it belongs. And god, inside me. At last! “Wait,” Jake pants, pulling back. “I nearly forgot. I have something for you.” “I bet you do.” My hands slide lower, tracing the hard outline of his co*ck through his pants. Jake stifles a groan. “That too.” He tears himself from me, and goes to retrieve his jacket from the floor. He pulls out a velvet jewelry box, large and flat. “I got you something. I was going to give it to you after the gala . . . but, well. Here.” The smile on his face is pure, boyish triumph, and I open the box slowly, no idea what’s inside. “Holy sh*t!” Jake laughs. “Does this mean you like it?” “But . . . how . . . ?” I gape, totally lost for words, because staring back at me, nestled in the velvet, is the one piece for the show that eluded us, the infamous necklace from Bring Me the Stars. Diamantes sparkling in elaborate rows. “You said . . . You didn’t . . .” I stutter, disbelieving. This is the necklace that graced the neck of one of the most famous starlets in cinema. It’s spawned conspiracy theories and decades-long hunts. It’s HISTORY. “Want to try it on?” Before I know it, he’s fastened it around my neck where it glitters coolly—against my ratty blue terrycloth robe. “Oh my god,” I say when I can finally speak again. “How did you find it?” “Never ask a magician to reveal his secrets,” he says with a grin. I reach up, feeling the weight of the stones in my hand, and all of a sudden something occurs to me. “Wait . . . there were two necklaces made: the fake, and the real diamonds . . . This is the prop one, right?”

Jake pulls me back into his arms. “Who knows?” He smiles, tracing the outline of the gemstones on my skin. He leans closer, and nips at my earlobe “Now get undressed. I want to see you naked in it.” He peels off my robe, until I’m lying there wearing nothing but fabulous historic costume jewelry. Either that, or a breathtaking amount of diamonds. But none of that matters, not with Jake looking at me like this, like I’m the center of his whole world. “God, you’re beautiful,” he whispers, closing the space between us. I strip off his shirt and pants, and then he’s naked right along with me. f*ck, how long have I waited for this? To taste the contours of his body, and feel his hands running possessively over every inch of mine? I’m in heaven, totally lost to the moment as he licks and teases my breasts, dipping one hand between my thighs to stroke at my wet core. I press against him, squirming with need. My desire feels like it’s taking over me completely, like just one touch could make me explode. I find his co*ck and fist him in my hand, loving how hard he is. For me. Jake groans and begins to kiss his way down my body, but I pull him back. "No," I gasp. “I need you. To f*ck me. Right now.” His eyes flash with lust, and f*ck, it’s so hot, I can’t wait even another second. I reach blindly for my nightstand, and hallelujah!, I find a condom in the drawer. I roll it on him, and then he positions himself above me, braced on his forearms. He’s kissing me hard and deep, like he can’t get enough, but when he thrusts inside me, it’s slow. God, so slow, I feel him filling me up inch by hard, thick inch. Oh. My. God. Jake stills for a moment, just looking down at my face, but I can’t stop from flexing around him, and it’s like some kind of release. He groans into my mouth, pulling back and then pistoning hard inside. I moan, drawing my knees up to my chest so he can fill every inch of me, even deeper. So f*cking deep. He thrusts again, and I arch up, meeting him stroke for stroke. I’m clawing at his back, and he’s burying his face in my neck, f*cking with all the pent-up abandon we’ve been holding back until now. He shifts position, and then YES, he’s stroking up inside me at a new angle, hitting my cl*t with every thrust and drilling deep all the way to— Holy f*ck, is that my G-spot? “Yesssss!” I scream. “Oh my god, don’t stop. Don’t ever f*cking stop!” But Jake suddenly changes the pace, slowing to longer, deliberate strokes. I thrust, trying to get back that hard, swift rhythm, but he grabs my wrists and pins me to the mattress.

“Not so fast,” he says, a glint in his eye, and f*ck, it’s so sexy. I love the feel of him holding me down. He thrusts into me again, slow, so sweet I feel it everywhere. I whimper. “That’s right, baby. Take it all. Every f*cking inch.” I shudder. Dirty talk, too? God, I love this guy. I love him. Oh. Jake f*cks me again with infinite gentleness, and I can’t stop the tide of pleasure from rising, the wild tingles starting in my toes and spreading like stardust through my whole body. “Jake,” I gasp, and I can see it in his eyes, he’s right there with me. “Lizzie.” He leans down and kisses me, drenched in sweat, both of us riding out this incredible high until it takes over, consuming us, and I come with a cry. Pleasure slams through my body and I feel Jake explode inside me with a strangled cry as I lose my mind in the rush, and how long I’ve waited to feel him, just like this. Holy sh*t. That was incredible. When can I do it all over again? Jake collapses on top of me. “Worth the wait?” he asks, breathing hard. I laugh. “Not bad, for a start. But you know what they say about practice . . .” “How it only improves on perfection?” Jake rolls off me, pulling me to spoon against him. “Just so you know,” he murmurs in my ear, “I love you, Lizzie Ryan.” My heart blooms wide open. I twist to face him, grinning so wide I never want it to end. “Just so you know, I love you, Jake Weston.” Jake smiles back at me, reaching to touch the necklace—which somehow, amazingly, stayed on through that epic f*ck. “It looks good on you.” “Mmmm . . .” I yawn, my eyes already drifting shut. He chuckles, wrapping his arms around me, and I start to drift into a happy sleep. But something’s tapping lightly against my mind, something I should be remembering right now. The bounty.

Holy sh*t! My eyes fly open. “Oh my god,” I squeal. “That f*ck just earned us fifty thousand dollars. We’re rich!”

34

THREE MONTHS LATER

“WE NEED MORE DRINKS!” Della exclaims, rapping her hand on the bar to get Zach’s attention. “Oh, bartender!” she calls out in a lilting voice. “Don’t you know that the first rule of dive bar etiquette is to never neglect your patrons?” Zach walks back over, bending down to kiss her. “What are you gonna do?” he asks with a co*cky grin. “Write me a terrible Yelp review or something?” “I just might,” Della purrs, leaning in for another kiss. “Slow service, rude staff, but the bartender is f*cking amazing in bed.” And to think I was actually worried about them for a hot minute. But after Jake and I announced the strike was over, Zach folded, too—to Della’s intense relief. Plus, she’s definitely appreciating Zach more these days. So all’s well that ends well, as Shakespeare might say. I’m just glad to be plain old Lizzie again, instead of Dapper’s prize bounty. Okay, Lizzie with a hot boyfriend, great friends, a job I love, and my student loans almost entirely paid off, but Lizzie nonetheless. I still watch old movies in my ratty bathrobe and cry at the endings—but now it’s because I know that I was right to believe: you really can find it all. Love, romance—not to mention what just might be the hottest sex on the planet with a guy I’m crazy about. A guy who f*cks me up against the wall just because, and who will show up with a bottle of champagne on a random Tuesday night for no reason whatsoever. And most of all, a guy who really cares about me. Because that’s all that any of us are really looking for. Someone to see us for our best, and love us at our worst. It may be cheesy as hell, but there’s a reason the classics stick around. Love never goes out of style. “Time for a toast!” Miles announces, pulling Tatiana onto his lap. She smiles and strokes his hair like a kitten—instead of the untamed mountain lion Miles was

complaining about. I guess that trip they took last month to the Maldives sans baby did the trick, because they haven’t kept their hands to themselves since the moment they walked in. “To the end of the strike!” “To Lizzie getting laid!” Della hollers. “Gee, thanks.” “Or how about we toast the real reason for this get-together,” Jake corrects them. “Here’s to my gorgeous, talented girlfriend, who is finishing up her first week in her position as the new head curator at the Met!” We cheer. Morgan surprised us all by quitting last month. She just walked in one day, said she was done with all of us, and moved to Paris with her fiancé. I didn’t think I had a hope in hell of such a major promotion, but I guess I was riding high off the amazing Hollywood exhibit reviews, because after a nerve-wracking series of interviews, they just announced today that I got the job. “You deserve it,” Jake says, leaning down to kiss me. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll find room in the budget to hire me for another project. But I’m warning you, I don’t come cheap.” “That’s not what I heard,” Della interrupts, and he throws a peanut at her. I laugh, nestled in his arms, and suddenly, I feel a wave of affection too big to contain. OK, not just affection. I’ve been horny as hell for him since the night we hooked up, and it doesn’t show any sign of fading just yet. “Come on.” I tug Jake’s hand. “We’ll be right back!” “Get a room!” Zach complains after me. “In fact, you have one. It’s right upstairs!” I hear Della hushing him as I lead Jake into the back hallway. I shove a door open and tug him inside. “Where are we?” he says in the dim light. “Storage closet. Now take off your pants.” Jake chuckles. “Yes, ma’am.” He unbuckles and shoves me back against the wall. Goddamn, but he feels good. He rubs my cl*t until I moan, biting down on his shoulder. “Are we ever going to be done making up for lost time?” he asks, easing my thighs wider and thrusting inside me. “Nope.” I gasp, taking him deep. “Never.” “Now that sounds like a happy ending to me.”

And it is.

THE END Thanks for reading! If you want more, then why not sign up for my mailing list and receive a FREE copy of one of my bestselling books? CLICK HERE to claim your book. And keep scrolling to check out another of my sexy romantic comedy reads, GET LUCKY.

GET LUCKY What happens when you wake up in a hotel suite next to a gorgeous naked man with absolutely no memory of the past twelve hours? I guess it's true what they say. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Or at least I hope it stays here. The Romantic Style convention was meant to be a weekend of raucous fun with friends, sun, and enough poolside margaritas to forget about my ex. But now, instead of meeting my fans and signing books, I'm stuck with co*cky divorce lawyer Nate Wexler. He's arrogant, infuriating, and I can't keep my hands off of him. Judging by the state of our hotel room, last night was wild. I just wish I could remember it. A pair of matching tattoos. A cheap wedding veil. A half empty box of glow in the dark condoms. What the hell just happened? AVAILABLE NOW!

1 JULIA

WAKING up in Vegas was always a treat. But for Lola Sinclair, industrial saboteur and sexual adventurer, waking up with a rock-hard arm around her stomach and a rising erection against her back was the only way to start the day in Sin City. She was still lingering in the delicious aftereffects of a dream as his fingers trailed down her stomach to flit gently across her puss*. Hmm. Flit gently. Not sure it’s the best word choice, but whatever. I can always edit later. Lola smiled, her lips parting as Archer rolled his thumb around her cl*t. His finger pushed inside of her, and she was instantly wet. Hopefully, his rock-hard co*ck would soon follow. Yeah. That’s good. Maybe we could have something more descriptive, like a simile? “She was instantly wet, like a St. Tropez beach at high tide.” Eh, maybe not. Lola groaned deep in her throat as he fingered her, his other hand tracing delicate patterns across her naked back. “Damn,” she thought, “I am going to hate to wake up from this dream. I—” Wait a minute. My eyes snap open. Lola Sinclair’s not the one in Vegas; I am. She’s not the one with someone waking her by saying good morning to her cl*t; I am. Lola Sinclair, BDSM sexpert and awesome international spy, doesn’t even exist; I just write books about her. And it’s not Archer Valmont, sad*stic billionaire and champion badminton player, with his rock-hard arm around my stomach and his rising erection flush against my . . . . What the flying f*ck? Who the hell am I in bed with? I turn to find a stubbled, ruggedly handsome face on the other pillow. The man wakes up slowly, bedroom eyes dreamy. His dark hair is tousled from what must

have been an athletic night. The smile stretched across his face slowly collapses as he takes me in, and his eyes widen with shock. Oh God. Where the f*ck am I, and who the f*ck is this? “What the hell?” the mystery man grunts. I try to roll away from him, but I’m too tangled in the sheets. So, tangled and rolling, I fall out of bed and hit the floor.

2 NATE

LOGIC IS MY FRIEND. Whenever I’m on the phone with a client, guiding him or her through the trauma of a contentious divorce, I remember I’m supposed to be the one with the level head and the ironclad plan. Whenever people sit across from me, blubbing into a packet of Kleenex while going on about how it’s over, how can it be over, I’m the man with a pitcher of ice cold drinking water and a detailed list of why they should be f*cking glad it’s over. He cheated on you. She’s looking to take full custody and half your annual salary. Why would you want to put yourself through this hell one more day? Calm, orderly thoughts lead to calm, orderly lives. No surprises means no surprising f*ck-ups. So when I wake up slowly from a dream about having a round, sexy ass pressed up against my morning wood, I’m happy to languish. What man wouldn’t? It’d felt so real. Turns out it felt real because it was real. And when I snap back to consciousness and find myself face to face with a pair of enormous blue eyes and a tangled mane of strawberry blonde hair, I realize I don’t know where the hell I am or who the hell I’m with. Focus, Nate. And do it fast, because she looks like she’s about to start screaming. First part comes back easy. I’m in the Bellagio hotel, Las Vegas, in a damn sweet, well, suite. Top floor, corner penthouse, killer view of the Strip at night. No, I’m not rolling in money, though I’m certainly not hurting for cash. I’ve guided enough high profile billionaires through painless divorce settlements that it gets me a few perks. Like free Vegas hotels whenever I feel like it. Okay. We’re in the hotel. That’s clear to me. But the strawberry blonde with the increasingly terrified blue eyes? That one’s not so clear. And I don’t like it when I don’t know the answer to a very important question.

So take it easy, Nate. Proceed with caution. Maybe start with— “What the hell?” Okay, not the most eloquent, but can you f*cking blame me? The woman twists around and falls off the bed. sh*t. I sit up at once and discover that I’m completely naked. Great. So is she. “Are you okay?” I ask, leaning over the bed. She looks up at me, blinking herself awake, and pushes her curls out of her face. “What am I doing here?” she snaps, clutching the sheets to cover her (ample) breasts as she gets up off the floor. Which leads to question three. “Why are you naked?” I say. “Why are you naked?” “It’s my bed.” Yes! Pwned by logic. I’m doing pretty good so far, considering my erection is still at half mast. I rub my eyes and fish around for my pants. Where the f*ck are my pants? I spot them flung across the room, decorating the lampshade. My aim last night was either awesome or for sh*t. “Okay, hold on. I remember you,” I grumble, running a hand through my hair. It’s coming back to me, slowly and in a blur. I snap my fingers. “Jenny!” “Julia,” she corrects. She sighs, loses her sense of modesty, and drops the sheet. And as freaked out as I am right now, I appreciate the view. She runs around the room collecting her clothes. What do I do? Look away, not look away? What’s the best option here? I think I should avert my eyes, though when she bends over, I find it hard to tear my gaze away from that that fantastic ass. Hell, I’m only human. And there’s something drawing my attention—oh sh*t. My eyebrows shoot up. “You got a tattoo,” I say. “Huh?” She cranes her neck to look over her shoulder, but she can’t glimpse what I’m seeing: a weird looking blue box, planted right on the small of her back. “What is that thing?” I ask as she runs to the closet door mirror and turns around. She sees it now, and curses. The ink looks fresh, and there’s a plastic wrap pasted to her skin that’s halfway falling off. She must’ve gotten it last night. I can’t help grinning. People make sh*tty choices in Vegas. “I did it. I actually got the TARDIS on my ass,” she whispers, looking horrified.

Tortoise? What? “A TARD-ASS, if you will.” She giggles a little. Then the woman—Julia—stops and looks at me quizzically. “Wait. Get up and turn around.” My smile evaporates. Oh, sh*t. I wondered what that tingling feeling on my lower back was. I get out of bed—treating her to a full show—and check myself in the bathroom door’s mirror. f*ck me. Some weird black symbol, right above my ass. “What is it?” I grunt. “Chinese?” She scoffs at my ignorance. “No, doofus. It’s the rebel alliance symbol from Star Wars.” Holy sh*t. I’ve been branded a nerd. Okay, keep calm. You can still make partner with this. At least it’s not on your forehead. Oh my God. “What the hell did we do last night?” I say. Be calm. I need to be calm right now, because Julia seems to be starting to hyperventilate with laughter at my tattoo. God, that’s annoying. There it is, a twinge of recognition—this woman annoys me. “You want to knock it off?” I say. She puts her hands up and gets herself under control. “Okay, last night. All I know is there were shots. Shots everywhere. On everything.” She groans and rubs her face. “Probably mostly tequila. My mouth tastes like a whor*house in Tijuana. Speaking of, do you have any more shots?” “Of what?” I grunt. She shrugs in response. “Of booze? I think a little hair of the dog would help right now. Or maybe the whole damn dog.” She blinks and screws up her face. “I’ve had some hangovers in my time, but Jesus.” She’s not wrong. My own head feels like someone’s pounding to be let out. Like they left their keys outside my skull, and they need to get them right the f*ck now. “Check the kitchen. There should be a bottle of champagne at all times. Like I ordered.” I take a deep breath. This is fine. Mostly. I’m just naked with a stranger, sporting an ass tattoo, and my maybe-probably hook-up is a morning drinker. Vegas does sh*tty things to you. “Ooh, constant champagne? Fancy. Dom Perignon? I don’t settle for anything

else.” She bats her eyelashes at me, over-the-top flirtatious. And I can’t help it. I laugh. And that gives me a f*cking migraine. “If I were you, I’d settle for a cup of coffee and some Excedrin,” I say, rubbing my head. “Breakfast of champions. Do you always treat your dates this way?” she drawls, finally wriggling into her black lace panties. I try not to watch that little dance, because my co*ck is perking up and I don’t need this right now. “You’re not my date.” I think my skull is about to start melting. I haven’t been hungover like this since sophom*ore year. She juts her chin out. “You know, you are definitely the type of guy to completely f*ck up an easy score. I mean, a naked woman in your bed? Most guys would be turning on the charm like—” Then she snaps her fingers, a wild light in her eyes. “I got it! Nate! That’s your name.” “You win the door prize.” I grab my pants from off the lamp. I can’t help but notice that Julia’s eyes track down my body. She thoughtfully bites her lip—maybe she likes what she sees. I’m a little tempted to turn around, give her a full frontal show. Again, my co*ck’s at the ready. f*cking stop it, dude. But curvy redheads were always one of my weaknesses. Even when they’re insulting me. “So. We both must have been crazy bombed last night, right?” Julia says. Her cheeks tinge pink. “Because I’m not really the type of person to wake up all The Lost Weekend, you know?” “Don’t worry about it. As far as either of us is concerned, this never happened.” Whatever did happen, that is. I kind of want to ask if she remembers, but I also don’t really want to find out. “Fine. Great.” Is she being short with me? Was my response not flattering enough for her? “Well, as they say in old Hollywood, don’t call us. We’ll lose your number and pretend you never existed,” she says. “They didn’t say that. Did I give you my number?” I grab my phone and flip through the contacts, but nope. Nothing. Julia rolls her eyes. “Relax, O Anxious One. You shall remain unmolested. At least, you won’t be molested further.” She wrinkles her nose. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the Grey Havens.” She pulls her shirt on over her purple lacy bra. I’m a little sad to see that go, even as

I want to get her out the door. “Grey Havens. Is that the hotel café?” I ask. She starts laughing hysterically. She has to lean against the wall, her face flushing pink with exertion. Apparently I’m amusing. “Oh, I needed that. Humor keeps us all from going insane, you know? See you around, Nate.” She blows an air kiss, and then slips into some impractically tall heels. We head to the front door, and she spins around, striking a dramatic pose. “Tell me you’ll never forget me,” she says, her head tilted back and one hand flung into the air. “Bye,” I say, ushering her out and closing the door after her. I lean my forehead against that door for a second, taking a deep breath. All right. Calm. Under control. First I need to head for the bathroom, to shower and clean off the smell of cheap booze and sweat. There’s a knock at the door. sh*t, she probably forgot something. I open up to find a valet holding an extraordinary bouquet of flowers. And when I say extraordinary, I mean tacky beyond all reason. Brightly colored roses, explosions of baby’s breath, pink and orange tiger lilies sprayed with glitter and rearing up out of the back of the arrangement. There are even miniature blown-glass flowers, bright yellow and neon blue. I rub my eyes and shake my head. “The wedding venue’s the pavilion. Take it down—” “Wedding?” The valet blinks at me. Maybe if I close the door on him, it’ll send a message. “Yeah, Kaufman-Rosenbaum wedding.” “Nate Wexler?” the kid asks. Oh, f*ck. “Delivery. You ordered these last night.” Of course I did. I stare at the monstrous bouquet, wanting to punch it in its flowery face. “You don’t remember any other spectacularly ridiculous things I did last night, do you?” I grumble as I stand aside and let him in. The valet trots into the living room and deposits the bouquet on the coffee table. He blinks again, a hotelemployed deer in the headlights. “I just deliver flowers,” he mumbles. I grab my wallet, tip him, and he leaves while I stare at the gargantuan floral display. There’s a card, at least. I grab it and read it. Julia, I can’t believe we did that. You’re so f*cking sexy.

I actually ordered a floral arrangement and had the florist put that on the card. But that’s not even the worst part. “I can’t believe we did that”? Well, what the flying f*ck did we do? As I stumble into the bathroom, turn on the shower and get in, my mind races. Did we actually f*ck? Where did we go last night, and what did we do? Will this pounding headache ever go away? When the hell did I get a tattoo? What did we do that I couldn’t believe? Seriously. What the f*ck happened yesterday?

To be continued… Find out what happened on Nate and Julia’s wild night in GET LUCKY - AVAILABLE NOW!

There’s more from Lila Monroe! THE BILLIONAIRE BARGAIN SERIES Out now! Sexy Australian billionaire Grant Devlin is ruining my life. He exercises shirtless in his office, is notorious for his lunchtime hook-ups, he even yawns sexily. If I didn't need this job so bad, I'd take his black Amex and tell him where to swipe it. He doesn't even know I exist, but why would he? He jets off to Paris with supermodels, I spend Friday nights with Netflix and a chunk of Pepperidge Farm frozen cake—waiting for his call. Because every time he crashes his yacht, or blows $500k on a single roulette spin in Monte Carlo, I’m the PR girl who has to clean up his mess. But this time, it’s going to take more than just a fat charity donation. This time, the whole company is on the line. He needs to show investors that he’s settling down, and Step #1 is pretending to date a nice, stable girl until people forget about what happened with the Playboy Bunnies backstage at the Oscars. My plan is perfect, except for one thing: He picks me. THE BILLIONAIRE BARGAIN Available now!

THE BILLIONAIRE GAME SERIES Out now! Sexy playboy billionaire Asher Young goes through girlfriends like he goes through bottles of Moët. I would know — he brings them all to get fitted for my luxury lingerie designs. I guess that's one way to avoid awkward conversations when they find another girl’s panties in his Maserati.

Now he has a proposition for me: he’ll invest in my design business, and I’ll finally open the boutique of my dreams. There’s just one problem: I can’t stop kissing him. And he looks REALLY good naked.

Make that two problems…. THE BILLIONAIRE GAME Available now!

BILLIONAIRE WITH A TWIST SERIES Out now! Billionaire Hunter Knox comes straight up – with a side of trouble. Heir to a bourbon fortune, he’s hired my ad agency to save his family business. It’s my chance to win a star client and prove I can play with the big boys, until my onenight stand comes back to haunt me like the ultimate hangover. Now I have to think up a killer campaign, and keep from falling into bed with Hunter again. Which is easier said than done when he’s the most handsome, arrogant, downright sexiest man I’ve ever met. I’m going to need another drink. Available now CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE

RUGGED BILLIONAIRE He's good with his hands and handy with his tools... Laurel Young needs a plan, and fast. After her reality TV boss has a major meltdown, not-so-funemployment seems inevitable--unless she can pitch the idea of a lifetime. When she sees Flint McKay's audition tape - flanneled, handsome as hell, and building a house with his own two hands - she knows she's found her secret weapon. The women of America are going to love him, especially if she can convince him to try building without the flannel shirt. Only problem is, Flint didn’t make that tape - and he has zero interest in trading the wilds of Western Massachussetts for the bright lights of Hollywood. But Laurel isn’t the kind of girl to take no for an answer. Soon, she's knee-deep in rustic charm, and getting plenty of hands-on experience. And it turns out, this city girl and country guy may have a few things in common after all, like crazy hot chemistry, a wild side, and a weakness for good whiskey... But can their behind-the-scenes connection last once the world falls in love with Flint? And will this be the big break both of them need- or leave them in the dirt? Available now!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Combining her love of writing, sex and well-fitted suits, Lila Monroe wrote her first serial, The Billionaire Bargain, in 2015. She weaves sex, humor and romance into tales about hard-headed men and the strong and sassy women who try to tame... love... tame them. Her books are extensions of her own fantasy life and take readers from the boardroom to the Berkshire Mountains, with keen character development, unique plot lines, and fanciful romance. Thank you for reading! Sign up for my VIP list for news, prizes, and free books! CLICK HERE

@lilawrites lilamonroebooks www.lilemonroebooks.com [emailprotected]

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