One hundred and thirty-eight, one hundred and thirty-nine, one hundred and forty. The last ceiling tile—the one all the way in the corner of my bedroom closest to the window—had cracked. That’s new.
I needed to call the super and get that replaced before it screwed up my daily count and started to cause me stress instead of helping alleviate it.
I was still lying on my bedroom floor after hanging up with Bryant, a guy I’d met at the supermarket last week (instead of the usual bar pick-up, which never seemed to pan out that great).
He’d called to tell me he was stuck at work and going to be an hour late for our second date, which was fine with me because I was tired and had no desire to get up anyway.
Taking a deep, cleansing breath, I shut my eyes and focused on the sound of my own breathing. In and out, in and out.
Eventually finding my calm, I hauled myself up off the carpet, freshened up my makeup, and poured a glass of wine before grabbing my laptop.
I browsed the New York marketing job posts on Monster.com for the sum total of five minutes before growing bored, and then I went on Facebook. As usual. Because job hunting sucks.
Scrolling through my friends’ posts, I saw the same old things—pictures of food, their kids, the lives they wanted us to believe they had. I sighed.
A picture of a guy I went to middle school with cradling his newborn son popped up in my feed, and my mind immediately went to the man I hadn’t gone to middle school with, ~Chase Parker.~
I’d thought about my fake classmate more often than I cared to admit over the last month.
Odd little things made him pop into my mind—Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups on the impulse-buy shelf at the grocery store checkout (I bought them)
a picture of Josh Duhamel as I thumbed through People magazine in the waiting room at my dentist (Chase could easily pass for his brother—I ~might~ have torn out the page), my vibrator in my nightstand drawer
(I didn’t, but I thought about it.
I mean, I did have that page and all).
This time when the man leaped into my thoughts, before I knew it, I was typing Chase Parker into the Facebook search bar. My gasp was audible when his face popped up.
The flutter I felt in my chest was pathetic. God, he’s even more gorgeous than I remembered. I clicked to enlarge the photo.
He was dressed casually, wearing a white T-shirt, jeans with a rip at the knee, and black Chucks. It was a good look for him.
After spending a full minute appreciating his sexy face, I zoomed in and noticed the emblem on his T-shirt: Iron Horse Gym. There was one on the same block as the restaurant where we’d met.
I wondered if he lived nearby.
Unfortunately, I wouldn’t find out. None of his bio was set to public. In fact, the only picture I could see was that one profile picture.
I’d need to send him a friend request and have him accept if I wanted to see more. Although tempted, I decided against it.
He would probably think I was nuts sending a friend request to a guy who thought I was a bitch (and told me as much), who I’d met while we were both on dates with other people, and after a full month had passed.
But that didn’t stop me from screenshotting his photo so I could look at it again later. After several more minutes of daydreaming about the man, I gave myself an adult pep talk.
You need to find a job. You need to find a job. You have only one week of work left after this one. Get your ass off of Facebook.
It worked, and for the next fifty minutes I scoured the help wanted ads for something—anything—that sounded remotely cosmetics-marketing related, or even just remotely interesting.
I knew I shouldn’t bank on just the two interviews I had scheduled so far, but there wasn’t much out there.
By the time my doorbell buzzed, I felt deflated about ever finding a job to replace the one I’d held for the last seven years and, until recently, loved.
Bryant’s kiss when I opened the door definitely went a long way toward changing my mood. It was only our second date, but he certainly had potential.
“Well, that was a nice hello,” I breathed.
“I’ve been thinking about doing that all day.”
I smiled up at him. “Come on in. I’m almost ready. I just need to grab my bag and get my phone from the charger.”
He pointed to the front door after closing it behind him. “Did you have a break-in or something? What’s with all the extra locks?”
My front door had a regular lock and three deadbolts. Normally, I would answer honestly and explain that I felt safer with an extra lock or two and leave it at that. But Bryant wasn’t most dates.
He was really trying to get to know me, and if he pried further—as I worried he might—I’d be forced to open up about some things I wasn’t ready to yet.
So I lied. “The building manager is big on security.”
He nodded. “Well, that’s good.”
As I was clasping on a necklace in my bedroom, I yelled out to Bryant, “There’s wine in the fridge, if you want.”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
When I came out from the bedroom, he was sitting on the couch. My laptop was still open next to him from my job search.
I spoke as I fastened my earrings. “So what are we going to see?”
“I figured we could decide when we get there. There’s a Vin Diesel flick I want to see. But since I’m an hour late, I won’t argue if you aren’t a fan.”
I smiled. “Good, because I’m not. I was thinking more along the lines of that new Nicholas Sparks movie.”
“Pretty steep punishment for being late. It was only an hour, not three days,” he teased.
“That’ll teach you.”
Bryant stood as I walked over to shut my laptop. “By the way, who’s the guy in your background?”
My brow furrowed. “What guy?”
He shrugged. “Tall. Messy hair that would like stupid on me. I’m hoping it isn’t an ex-boyfriend you’re secretly hung up on. Looks like he belongs on an Abercrombie bag.”
Not having a clue what he was talking about, I opened my laptop back up to take a look. Shit. Chase Parker greeted me.
When I’d saved his picture from Facebook, I must have inadvertently also set it as my screen background. Seeing that gorgeous face again, I grew flustered. Yet Bryant was waiting for an answer.
“Umm… That’s my cousin.”
It was the first thing that popped into my head. After I said it, I realized it was a little bizarre to have a picture of your male cousin set as your background.
So I attempted to fix it with more lies—something out of character for me.
“He’s a model. My aunt sent me some of his recent headshots and asked for an opinion on which I liked best, so I downloaded them to my laptop.
“My friend Jules was drooling over them and set one as my background. I’m so low-tech, I don’t even know how to change it.”
Bryant chuckled and seemed to accept what I’d said.
What is it with Chase Parker and made-up stories?
On Thursday, I had an interview in the morning and a second scheduled for the afternoon. The subway was jam-packed, and the air conditioning wasn’t working.
So, of course, that also meant the only train running was a local, not an express.
Beads of sweat trickled down my back as I stood sandwiched between other sweating commuters. The large guy to my right wore a T-shirt with cut-off sleeves and held on to the pole above him.
My face was perfectly aligned with his hairy armpit, and his deodorant wasn’t working. My left side wasn’t exactly all sunshine and roses either.
While I was pretty sure the woman didn’t smell as bad, she was sneezing and coughing without covering her mouth.
I need to get off this train.
Fortunately, I arrived at my interview a few minutes early and could make a quick stop in the ladies’ room to fix myself up.
The sweat and humidity had smeared my makeup, and my hair was a frizzy mess. July in New York City. It seemed like the heat got stuck between all the tall buildings.
Digging into my pocketbook, I fished out some hairpins and a brush and was able to pull my auburn locks back into a neat twist.
The makeup would have to do with only a baby wipe as cleanup since I hadn’t thought to bring any eyeliner. I took off my suit jacket and realized I’d sweated through my silk shirt.
I’d have to keep the hot jacket on for the entire interview.
A woman walked in while I was arm-deep inside my shirt with a damp paper towel, wiping sweat from my body. She caught what I was doing in the mirror.
“Sorry. It was so hot on the subway, and I have an interview,” I offered as explanation. “I don’t want to be a sweaty, smelly mess.”
She smiled. “Been there. Gotta break down and take a cab in July when it’s this humid and you have an interview for a job you really want.”
“Yeah. I’m definitely going to do that for my afternoon interview. It’s across town, and that’s the job I really want, so I might go all out—even stop in at Duane Reade for some deodorant, too.”
After I rushed to clean myself up, my morning appointment left me sitting in the lobby for over an hour before calling me in for the interview.
It gave me some time to fully cool down and also check out their latest product catalogs. They were definitely in need of a new marketing campaign.
I jotted down some notes on what I would change, in case the opportunity presented itself.
“Ms. Annesley?” a smiling woman called from the door leading to the inner office. I slipped on my suit jacket and followed her inside. “Sorry to keep you waiting.
“We had a small emergency this morning with one of our biggest vendors, and it had to be dealt with right away.” She stepped aside as we arrived at a large corner office. “Have a seat.
“Ms. Donnelly will be right in.”
“Oh. Okay. Thank you.” I had thought she was my interviewer.
A few minutes later the vice president of Flora Cosmetics walked in. It was the woman from the hallway bathroom—the one who’d seen me washing my armpits.
I was glad I’d at least done it without unbuttoning my shirt. I tried to recall what we’d spoken about, other than the weather. I didn’t think there was much.
“I see you’ve cooled off.” Her tone was very business-like, not at all friendly like it had been in the bathroom.
“Yes. Sorry about that. The heat really hit me hard today.”
She shuffled some papers on her desk into a pile and fired off her first question without any further small talk. “So, Ms. Annesley, why are you in search of a new job?
“It says here you’re currently employed.”
“I am. I’ve been with Fresh Look Cosmetics for seven years. I started there right out of college, actually. I worked my way up from marketing intern to director of marketing during that time.
“I’ll be honest, I’ve been happy there for my entire career. But I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling at Fresh Look, and it’s time I started to look for other opportunities.”
“A ceiling? How so?”
“Well, Fresh Look is still a family-owned company,
and although I admire and respect Scott Eikman, the founder and president, most of the executive-level positions are taken by members of the Eikman family—
one of whom, Derek Eikman, was just promoted over me to vice president.”
Saying it out loud still left a bitter taste in my mouth.
“So, people less deserving than you are promoted because of kinship? And that’s why you’re leaving?”
“I suppose that’s a big part of it, yes. But it’s also just time for me to move on.”
“Isn’t it possible that members of the Eikman family know the business better, having grown up in that world? Perhaps they are actually more qualified than other employees?”
What’s the bug up this woman’s ass? None of this nepotism is new. Hell, half of the Walmart execs are still blood-related to Sam Walton, and he’s been gone for two decades.
It was definitely not the time to add that I’d had too much to drink at last year’s company holiday party and slept with the then-director of sales, Derek Eikman.
It was a one-time thing, a drunken mistake with a co-worker after a year-long dry spell. I’d known it was a mistake ten minutes after it was over.
I just didn’t how big of a mistake until two days later, when the asshole announced his engagement to his girlfriend of seven years. He’d told me he was single and unattached.
When I’d marched into his office and told him off, he’d explained that we could still fuck even though he was engaged.
The man was a sleazebag, and there was no way I could work for him now that he’d been promoted to vice president. Aside from being a cheating pig, he also knew nothing about marketing.
“In my case, I’m relatively confident that I was the better candidate.”
She gave me a completely fake smile and folded her hands on her desk. Did I say something to upset her in the bathroom earlier? I didn’t think so... But her next question certainly jogged my memory.
“So tell me, what is it about your afternoon interview that makes the company seem superior? I mean, as a marketing expert, they must be doing something right to make you consider paying for a cab?”
Oh. Shit. I’d completely forgotten that I’d told her I was going to take a cab to my next interview—since that was the job I ~really~ wanted.
There was no digging myself out of the hole I was in after that. Even though, in spite of things, I thought I handled myself professionally, I could tell her mind was made up about me.
Just as the interview was coming to an end, an older gentleman popped his head into her office. “Sweetheart, are you coming for dinner tomorrow night?
“Your mother has been bugging me to get you to commit.”
“Dad, umm…Daniel, I’m in the middle of an interview. Can we talk about it later?”
“Sure, sure. Sorry. Stop by my office later.” He smiled politely at me and knocked on the door jamb as his goodbye before walking away.
My mouth hung open as I turned back to my interviewer. I already knew the answer, but asked anyway. “Daniel…Donnelly, the president of Flora Cosmetics, is your father?”
“Yes. And I’d like to think I earned the SVP of marketing job because of my qualifications, not because I’m his daughter.”
Yeah, right. Since I’d inserted my foot into my mouth twice today, I saw no point in prolonging the pain.
I stood. “Thank you for your time, Ms. Donnelly.”
My afternoon only got better after that. I’d just stepped out of my air-conditioned cab in front of the building where my two o’clock interview was scheduled when my phone started buzzing.
The company I’d been excited about interviewing with—the company I’d essentially ruined my first interview over—was calling to cancel my interview and let me know the position had been filled already.
Great. Just great.
Shortly after that, I received a kiss-off email from Flora, thanking me for taking the time to interview but letting me know they were going a different direction in their hiring.
And it isn’t even two o’clock yet.
After a quick shower, my plan was to attempt to wait until closer to five o’clock and then get shitfaced. Big plans. I’d wasted a day off during my last weeks of work for this crap.
Might as well enjoy myself.
I was lying on my bedroom floor in the middle of my counting routine when my cell rang. Reaching up to the bed, I patted the mattress until my hand landed on my phone.
Seeing Bryant’s name flash on the screen, I almost didn’t answer because of my mood, but then decided to pick it up on the last ring.
“Hey. How did your interviews go?” he asked.
“I stopped on the way home and picked up two extra bottles of wine. Take a guess.”
“Not good, huh?”
“You could say that.”
“Well, you know what we should do about that?”
“Definitely. Get drunk.”
He laughed as if I was joking. “I was thinking more along the lines of working out.”
“Yeah. It helps to get stress out.”
“So does wine.”
“Yes, but with exercise, you feel great the day after.”
“But with wine, I don’t remember the day before.”
He laughed. (Again, I wasn’t joking.) “If you change your mind, I’m on my way to Iron Horse Gym.”
“It’s on 72nd. I’m a member there. I have guest passes you can use.”
It had been more than a month since my bizarre encounter with Chase Parker, yet suddenly I found myself rethinking alcohol vs. exercise because the man wore an Iron Horse Gym T-shirt in his Facebook photo.
“You know what? You’re right. I should exercise to help me relax. After all, I can get shitfaced later if it doesn’t work.”
“Now you’re talking.”
“I’ll meet you there. How does an hour sound?”
“See you then.”
I seriously should’ve had my head examined.
I blowdried my hair and put on my sexiest exercise gear to go work out with a great guy I’d recently started dating, yet none of my efforts were really for him.
Instead, I had far-fetched hopes of seeing a guy who owned a T-shirt with the gym name on it—
a guy who thought I was a bitch and dated statuesque blondes with excessive cleavage, not five-foot-one, B-cup women with hips, even if I did have a tiny waist.
Forty minutes on the elliptical, and I was totally regretting my drinking-vs.-exercise choice.
Bryant was lifting weights on the other side of the gym, and I should have been happy that a nice guy had invited me to come work out. Instead, I was out of breath, disappointed, and thirsty.
Glad I chilled two bottles of wine.
When he was done, Bryant came over and asked if I wanted to go for a swim. I hadn’t brought a suit, but I told him I’d keep him company in the pool area.
While he went to change and rinse off, I walked on the treadmill to cool down. The slow speed allowed me to catch up on a backlog of emails on my phone.
One of them was from a recruiting firm indicating that they’d found me the perfect job overseas—in the Middle East—and asking if I was interested in doing a video conference with the company.
I thought the email was funny because there were so many misspelled words and grammar errors.
After Bryant changed, we walked to the pool area together. I read him the email as he opened the door.
“It actually says in the qualification requirements, ‘Must be sober, sane, and not overly dramatic’.
“Think they have a PMS problem in Yemen?” Looking down at my phone as I walked, I crashed straight into someone.
“Sorry, I wasn’t looking where—”
The sight of Chase standing there was almost enough to knock me over. I’d secretly hoped to see him, yet never thought I actually would. What are the chances?
I did a double take, sure I was seeing things. But it was him all right, in the flesh. And what flesh it is.
Standing there shirtless and wet—wearing nothing but a pair of low-slung swim trunks—he had me stuttering. Literally.
“Ch…Ch…Ch—” I couldn’t get the word out.
Of course, Chase didn’t miss a beat. He smirked and leaned in. “You do a cute train impression, Buttercup.”
He remembers me.
I shook my head, attempting to snap myself out of it. But it was no use. He was so tall, and I was so short, I had no choice but to stare at his body. Water trickled down his abs.
I was mesmerized watching it speed up and slow down as it crossed the rippled lines of his six-pack. Damn.
I cleared my throat and finally spoke. “Chase.”
I was pretty freaking proud of myself for getting that much out. He had a towel slung around his neck and lifted it to dry off his dripping hair, revealing even more flesh.
His pectoral muscles were carved and perfect. And—oh, my God…is that… Holy shit. It is. His nipples were cold and erect, and one of them was….was…pierced.
“Good to see you, Reese. We don’t see each other for ten years, and now we’ve run into each other twice in a month’s time.”
It took me a minute to realize he was referring to our fake middle school years. His wit snapped me out of my haze.
“Yes. Aren’t I lucky?”
“I know you,” Bryant said.
I’d completely forgotten he was standing next to me. Hell, I’d forgotten anyone else on Earth existed for a minute. I furrowed my brow. Did the two of them actually know each other?
“You’re Reese’s cousin. The model.”
Shit! Shit! Shit! I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.
However, Chase (being Chase) went right along with it. He looked at me curiously as he spoke to Bryant. “That’s right. I’m cousin Chase. Aunt Bea’s youngest nephew. And you are?”
Bryant extended his hand, and Chase clasped it. “Bryant Chesney.” Then he turned to me. “I thought your mom’s name was Rosemarie? Same as my mom’s.”
Chase cut in smoothly. “It is. But some of us call her Bea. Nickname. She’s allergic to bees. Got stung at a family barbecue once. Her face swelled up, and the kids all called her Bea after that.”
Seriously, the man has to be a professional liar. He was so damn good at it, and he seemed to be turning me into one, too.
Bryant nodded like it all made sense. “Well, nice to meet you. I’ll let you two catch up while I get in a few laps.”
Just as Bryant began to walk away, Chase stopped him. “How did you know I was Chase? Aunt Bea showing off my pictures again?”
“Nah. Haven’t met any of Reese’s family yet. Saw your picture on her laptop.”
“It’s Reese’s background on her MacBook.”
Forget the hole I wanted to crawl in to hide a minute ago. Now I closed my eyes and prayed for the Earth to swallow me up and never spit me back out.
Or for the superpower of turning the Earth backward so time could rewind. I stood completely still and counted to thirty with my eyes tightly shut.
When my time was up, I opened one eye, peeking to see if Chase had disappeared.
“Still here.” He smirked.
I covered my face with my hands. “I’m so embarrassed.”
“Don’t be. We’re not blood cousins, so it’s not too weird for you to be dreaming about me at night.”
“I was not dreaming about you at night!”
“So it’s only during the day while you stare at my picture on your laptop, then?”
“It was an accident. I didn’t mean to set it as my background.”
He folded his arms over his chest. “Okay. I’ll buy that.”
“Good, because it’s true.”
“But how, exactly, did the picture get on your laptop in the first place? I don’t remember you snapping a pic during our double date.”
I snorted. “Double date?”
“Speaking of which, what happened to Oedipus? Kicked to the curb so soon? I gotta admit, even though you went about trying to get out of your date all wrong, you weren’t wrong about that guy.
“Boring as shit.”
“So who’s this new dope you’re with?”
“Dope? You don’t even know him.”
“Left me standing here with his girl. Dope.”
“He thinks we’re cousins!”
“I told you, we’re not blood-related.”
“Yes, but—” I laughed. “You’re bizarre, you know that?”
“Not any more bizarre than a woman who somehow took a photo of a perfect stranger and has it on her MacBook for her boyfriend to see.”
“He’s not my boyfriend.” I had no idea why I said that. It was sort of true, but sort of not. “Well, we’ve gone out twice.”
“Ah…so you haven’t slept with him yet.”
I hadn’t, but how would he know that? “What makes you say that?”
“Because you’re not the type of girl who sleeps with guys on the first or second date.”
“How would you know?”
“I just do.”
“What exactly is the type of girl who sleeps with a guy on a first date?”
“She sends signals—dresses a certain way, makes body contact. You know the type. I know you do.”
“Like Bridget?” That woman had been pawing him by the end of the night.
He said nothing.
I thought it was oddly gentlemanly that he didn’t agree about Bridget or confirm what I suspected happened after their date.
“So how did you get a picture of me anyway?” he asked instead.
I told the truth. Well, mostly. “I searched for you on Facebook after that night in the restaurant. I wanted to say thank you for saving me and making the evening fun.”
“You sent me a message?”
“No. I never did. It sort of…felt creepy that I’d stalked you, so I changed my mind.”
“And you liked my picture so much that you kept it?”
“I went to bookmark the page in case I changed my mind about sending you that note, and instead I saved the picture.” I felt the blush creeping up my face. I’d always been a terrible liar.
My mom used to say I was easier to read than a book.
Surprisingly, Chase nodded. I hadn’t expected him to let me off the hook that easily. “Is this your regular gym? I haven’t seen you here before.”
“No. It’s Bryant’s gym. He invited me. I had a bad day and planned to wine away my stresses. But he suggested I come work them off at the gym instead.”
“Told ya. Dope. Definitely not what I would have suggested to alleviate stress if I was Brandon.”
“So what would you have suggested?”
“Nothing.” He changed subjects. “So why was your day so bad, anyway?”
“Two job interviews. The first one I blew before I even walked into the office, and the second one blew me off just as I pulled up to their building.”
“You’re out of work?”
“Not yet. But I will be as of next Friday. Probably wasn’t the smartest move to give notice in this economy before I found another job.”
“What do you do?”
“Marketing. I was the director of marketing for Fresh Look Cosmetics.”
“Small world. I’m friendly with Scott Eikman, the president of Fresh Look. We play golf together sometimes.”
“Eight and a half million people in our little city, and my fake middle school boyfriend slash non-blood-related cousin golfs with the head of my company? That is bizarre.”
Chase laughed. “Scott’s retiring next year, right?”
“Yep. Moving to Florida and all. He has two sons who will probably take over.” Ugh. Derek. I wished ~he~ was moving to Florida. Or Siberia.
Chase and I had been standing just in front of the pool door since we bumped into each other. A guy knocked on the glass and flashed a Dr. Pepper, dangling it in the air.
Chase held up two fingers in response, then explained. “We made a bet. I kicked his ass in lap times. That’s my prize.”
I arched a brow. “A Dr. Pepper?”
“It’s good stuff. Don’t knock it or I won’t bring it to the next family barbecue.”
After another minute, his friend banged again. This time, he waved his hand to Chase as if to say, what the hell is taking you so long?
Chase nodded. “I gotta run. We have a dinner meeting in a half hour, and I need to shower.”
I tried to hide my disappointment. “Well, it was nice running into you, cuz.”
Our eyes locked for a minute. Just like the end of the night at the restaurant, Chase looked like he wanted to say something.
But instead, he glanced back over his shoulder to where Bryant was swimming, and then pulled me in for a hug, wrapping my ponytail around his fist and tugging my head back to look up at him.
His eyes lingered on my lips before he kissed my forehead. “Later, cuz.”
He took a few steps toward the locker room door before stopping and turning back. “I have a friend who’s a bulldog recruiter. Why don’t I put you in touch with her?
“Maybe she can help find you something?”
“Sure, I’d love that. I’m not having much luck by myself. Thank you.”
I handed him my cell, and he programmed in his number then sent a text to his own phone so we’d have each other’s contact information. Then he was gone. Immediately, I felt longing.
The odds of running into him a second time in this tremendous city were probably as long as being struck by lightning.
It would be less than a week before I found out sometimes lightning strikes twice.
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