Main The Proposal
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I discovered this book out of the blue and i enjoyed it. One of my personal faves to be honest. It made me feel a bunch of emotions in one sitting. Go check it out!!
05 January 2021 (04:49)
PRAISE FOR The Wedding Date “What a charming, warm, sexy gem of a novel. I couldn’t put The Wedding Date down. I love a good romance and this delivered from the first page to the last . . . One of the best books I’ve read in a while.” —New York Times bestselling author Roxane Gay “[An] effervescent, witty, and sexy novel, which serves as a reminder that romantic fiction doesn’t need to be a guilty pleasure—it can just be a straight-up pleasure . . . sometimes it’s liberating to read a book not just for a happy ending, but for the joy it contains on every single page.” —Nylon “Invokes a nostalgia that’s often reserved for Terry McMillan novels . . . a roller coaster of a romance.” —Bitch Media “The Wedding Date brims with personality. It’s funny, deeply honest, and above all, truly swoony—the kind of all-consuming romance where you hold your breath with delight as two wonderful people start to find each other, like the best possible version of real life. We can’t wait to read more from Jasmine Guillory.” —Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, bestselling authors of The Royal We “[An] incredibly delicious meet-cute . . . Guillory keeps this contemporary romance fresh with well-drawn multicultural characters navigating the perils of long-distance relationships.” —Booklist “Will charm rom-com fans.” —Kirkus Reviews TITLES BY JASMINE GUILLORY The Wedding Date The Proposal A JOVE BOOK Published by Berkley An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014 Copyright © 2018 by Jasmine Guillory Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random H; ouse to continue to publish books for every reader. A JOVE BOOK and BERKLEY are registered trademarks and the B colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Guillory, Jasmine, author. Title: The proposal / Jasmine Guillory. Description: First edition. | New York : Berkley, 2018. Identifiers: LCCN 2018022593| ISBN 9780399587689 (paperback) | ISBN 9780399587696 (ebook) Subjects: | BISAC: FICTION / Romance / Contemporary. | FICTION / Contemporary Women. | GSAFD: Love stories. Classification: LCC PS3607.U48553 P76 2018 | DDC 813/.6—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018022593 First Edition: October 2018 Cover art and design by Vikki Chu This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Version_1 To my dad, Paul Guillory. You have always believed in me. Thanks for raising me to believe in myself. Contents Praise for Jasmine Guillory Titles by Jasmine Guillory Title Page Copyright Dedication Acknowledgments Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-one Chapter Twenty-two Chapter Twenty-three About the Author ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Throughout this publishing process, I’ve been overwhelmed with gratitude for so many people and their kindness, generosity, and willingness to help. I’ve gotten advice, assistance, and support from countless people, without whom this book wouldn’t exist. I couldn’t have dreamed of finding as wonderful a publishing home as Berkley. Cindy Hwang, thank you for being a fantastic editor and champion. Kristine Swartz, Megha Jain, Jessica Brock, Fareeda Bullert, Jin Yu, Erin Galloway—thank you for everything you’ve done for me and my books. I’m grateful for you every day. Marianne Grace, Emma Reh, Vikki Chu, and Rita Frangie, thank you for making sure my books look amazing, inside and out. Lauren Monaco, Andrew Dudley, and the entire Berkley Sales team, you’re all superstars. I’m thrilled to work with all of you. Everyone should be so lucky as to have an agent as good as Holly Root. Thank you so much to you and everyone at Root Literary. So many writers have shared their time and knowledge with me. Amy Spalding and Akilah Brown, your guidance has been invaluable to me. Thank you for responding to all of the texts and IMs and emails, for talking me down and for pumping me up. I will forever be grateful for Roxane Gay, Heather Cocks, Jessica Morgan, Ruby Lang, Sara Zarr, Melissa Baumgart, Tayari Jones, Robin Benway, Caitlin Cruz, Nicole Cliffe, Daniel Ortberg, Laura Turner, Jami Attenberg, Stephanie Lucianovic, Samantha Powell, Nicole Chung, Rainbow Rowell, and Alexis Coe. All of you have helped me in countless ways. Rachel Fershleiser and Margaret H. Willison, your enthusiasm for books in general, and my books in particular, is the absolute best. Thank you for being you. My friends are the most wonderful people in the world. Janet Goode, I love you so much. Melissa Sladden and Jina Kim, thank goodness we found each other. Simi Patnaik and Nicole Clouse, I have no idea what I would do without you both. So many others have loved and supported me in so many ways: Jill, Katie, and Sally Vizas, Lisa McIntire, Sarah Mackey, Julian Davis Mortenson, Nathan Cortez, Kyle Wong, Ryan Gallagher, Sarah Tiedeman, Toby Rugger, Leslie Gross, Kate Leos, Lyette Mercier, Joy Alferness, Nanita Cranford, and Laurie Baker. I owe so many thanks to Wellesley College and the entire Wellesley community, but especially to Colleen Richards Powell, Korrie Xavier, and Marthine Satris. I would be nothing without my family. My parents, Paul and Donna Guillory, filled our home with books and taught me by example the joy of reading. My sister, Sasha Guillory, who I read to and who read to me. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who love me to pieces. Thank you for everything. Natalie Stewart Cortez, I hate that you aren’t here to read this book, but I try every day to live up to your memory. You found joy and laughter in life, even during the hard times, you fought for what you believed in, and most of all, you loved and loved and loved. May we all have people to love us as much as the world loved you. Chapter One . . . . . . . Nik Paterson looked around at the perfect Los Angeles day: clear blue sky, bright green baseball field, warm sun shining down on the thousands of people with her at Dodger Stadium. There was only one thought on her mind: when can I get out of here? Fisher was next to her, his blond man bun golden in the sun, laughing as he drank warm beer to celebrate his birthday. He and his buddies were talking about lifting, or their latest auditions, or their upcoming car purchases—all of the things his friends always talked about, all of the things Nik couldn’t care less about. If she’d known this birthday outing was going to include a bunch of Fisher’s friends, she would have at least gotten one of her girlfriends to come along so she would have someone to talk to. Although to be fair, it was possible Fisher had told her his friends were coming and she hadn’t been paying attention. She tended not to pay that much attention when Fisher talked, but then, she hadn’t been dating him for the past five months for his conversational skills. Nik looked back up at the scoreboard and sighed. It was still only the fifth inning; she probably had at least an hour, maybe an hour and a half, more of this. She didn’t have anything against baseball, exactly. It was just that she’d rather be spending this beautiful spring day at home with her laptop and a glass of bourbon on the rocks than outside at a baseball stadium with a warm beer. But when the hot dude you were sleeping with wanted to go to a Dodgers game for his birthday, you sucked it up and went along with him and his bros. She sighed again and reached for her phone. Maybe she could get some work done as she sat there. Just as she was starting to make some actual progress on a draft of an article, Fisher nudged her hard. “Nik! Put your phone down, you can’t miss this!” He threw his arm around her and kissed her on the cheek. She pressed save and tucked her phone back in her pocket. His favorite baseball player must be coming up to bat or something. She looked down at the field, but nothing was going on there. She followed Fisher’s pointed finger and looked up at the scoreboard, just in time to see on the screen: NICOLE: I LOVE YOU. WILL YOU MARRY ME? FISHER. She turned to Fisher, her mouth wide open. “What the hell is going on?” To her horror, he dropped down onto one knee, on top of the peanut shells that carpeted the concrete, dangerously close to the puddle of spilled beer. Oh God. He had a ring box in his hand. “Nikole.” He tucked a strand of hair behind his ear and opened the ring box. She averted her eyes. “Will you make me the happiest man in the world?” Was she asleep? This definitely felt like a nightmare. They’d only been dating for five months! That he loved her was news to her—he’d certainly never said that before—but a proposal? He didn’t even know how to spell her name! She tried to put on a smile, but she’d never had the best poker face—except, strangely, when she was actually playing poker. Not even his best friends would call Fisher perceptive, but even he could tell something was off with his happy moment. “Nik, did you hear me? You’re just standing there. You haven’t even put the ring on!” “I don’t . . .” She cleared her throat and tried to talk in a low voice, so the whole damn stadium couldn’t tell what was going on. “It’s just that we’ve never discussed this. We aren’t really in a place to . . . I didn’t . . . I just wish you’d brought this up before . . . before now.” “Are you saying no?” He was still on one knee, good God. “I’m saying this isn’t really the place to have this conversation.” He just stared at her, wide-eyed. “Are you saying no?” he repeated. She took a deep breath. “I’m trying not to say that out loud so everyone can hear me.” She was still hoping this was some sort of a joke. That any minute, he would reveal this was for a commercial or a reality show or something, and they would all laugh and go back to not paying attention to the game. “Come on, Nik,” Fisher said. Why wouldn’t he stand up? “We’re great together! Live a little! Give us a shot!” Live a little??? Was he approaching marriage like he would a spontaneous trip to Palm Springs for the weekend? “Fisher. Don’t do this.” “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.” He snapped the ring box closed, stood up, and tossed his head. The head toss didn’t work as well when his hair was in the bun. “Rejecting me in public! On my birthday! What kind of a person are you?” He stormed off and ran up the stadium stairs. So she guessed this wasn’t a joke then. She looked at his bros, and his bros looked at her. They shook their heads like they were disappointed in her, turned, and filed out of the row after him. Which left Nik alone to face the forty-five thousand pairs of eyes on her. * * * • • • Carlos nudged his sister Angela as the blond dude and his bros stalked up the stairs and out of the stadium. “Now I know what to tell your boyfriend not to do.” Angela rolled her eyes. “Nice try, but I don’t have a boyfriend.” Damn. She consistently refused to let him meet guys she was dating, so he was reduced to trying to trick her into admitting she had a boyfriend. Either he never managed to catch her off guard enough to admit it, or she’d never had a boyfriend since he started trying this. He was betting on the former. Granted, he never told Angie anything about the women he went out with, either, but that was different. He hadn’t dated anyone seriously in years, and none of the women he had minor interludes with these days mattered enough to meet his sister. “You have one good point,” Angela said. “Anyone dating me should definitely not do that.” Angela’s hand gestures got bigger as she talked. “She said they hadn’t discussed it. Who proposes to someone if they haven’t discussed it? Especially in public?” He looked back down at the woman—Nicole—now alone in her row. She’d sat back down and was typing something on her phone. The sun picked out the golden highlights in her dark curly hair. She was doing a very good job of pretending the whole stadium wasn’t talking about her. “I feel so bad for her.” He couldn’t believe she hadn’t jumped up to flee the building. The game had started back up again, but no one was watching. Everyone was looking at her. Including Carlos. “So do I,” Angela said. Nicole twirled one of her curls around her finger and pretended to watch the game. Carlos realized he was staring at her and forced himself to look away. He turned to Angela and shook his head. “I get trying to make a big romantic gesture and all, and wanting a surprise, but . . .” “Deciding to spend your life together shouldn’t be a surprise,” Angela said. “It should be something the two of you talk about first!” “Oh, hey, speaking of,” he said. “Did I tell you Drew proposed to his girlfriend a few days ago?” She laughed. “Really? That’s fantastic. I never would have thought a year ago that your friend Drew would be engaged.” She looked up at the JumboTron, and then at Carlos. “She did say yes, right?” He laughed. “She did. But then, they’d talked about it first.” Carlos looked back at the woman two rows down, who had not said yes. She was aggressively not looking at anyone around her. Her hair moved in the breeze that blew through the stadium, and her dark brown skin glowed in the sun. He’d only seen her face briefly up on the JumboTron, until he’d realized that this real-life drama was going on just ten feet below him, but he’d seen a striking face, with big dark eyes and bright red lips. He wondered how long she was going to stay at her seat. She probably hadn’t wanted to leave right away for fear of running into the man-bun guy, which made sense. But if he knew anything about the way things happened in L.A., if she sat here too long, she was in danger of . . . Yep, there it was. The camera crew. He poked his sister. She looked down and saw the problem immediately. “Oh my God, what a nightmare,” she said. “We’ve got to save her,” he said. “How do you propose to do that? Pun not intended.” “Follow my lead.” He stood up and made his way out of their row, Angie right behind him. He walked down the wide stadium stairs, his eyes on the field. When he got two rows down, he paused and glanced to the side. I hope this works, he thought, before he went in. “Nicole? Nicole, it is you!” he said, loud enough that not only she and the entire camera crew heard but also the other rows around them all turned to look. “Angela, look, it’s Nicole! We haven’t seen you for . . . my God, how many years has it been?” Angela took up his prompt as Carlos pushed the camera crew aside to get to Nicole. “At least five years, Carlos, it’s got to be? Nicole, how are you?” His sister threw her arms around the grinning woman, and whispered something in her ear before the embrace ended. “It’s so great to see you after all this time!” Angela said. She looked around with a huge smile on her face, and appeared to notice the camera crew for the first time. “Oh my goodness, are we interrupting something? I am so sorry, guys!” She smiled at the three men who had surrounded Nicole up until about thirty seconds before, with that wide-eyed look that had never failed to make men fall at her feet. “We haven’t seen each other for so long, imagine running into you here.” “Oh wow, how do you know each—” Carlos stepped in front of the guy with the camera. If the dude got aggressive, well, Carlos was pretty sure he had at least four inches and thirty pounds on him. “We were just heading to get more beer and Dodger Dogs, want to come with?” Want to come with? He sounded like one of his sixteen-year-old patients. “Great idea, I’m starving.” Nicole wiggled past the cameraman. “Chat with you guys later!” she called back to them, as she, Carlos, and Angie raced up the stairs. Hmmm, apparently, sounding like your sixteen-year-old patients was a way to not seem suspicious. They kept up the pretense on their way up the stairs, all saying things like “Wow, it’s been so long!” and “Fancy meeting you here!” and “I couldn’t believe my eyes that it was you!” over and over. When they finally got all the way up the stairs and inside, the three of them all leaned against the nearest wall and erupted with laughter. “Thank you guys SO MUCH for saving me,” Nicole said when she finally stopped laughing. “I was in the middle of trying to remember the martial arts moves I learned twenty years ago, but you rescued me without me having to knock someone down or, more likely, embarrass myself.” “You’re not saved yet,” Carlos said. He put his hand on her back and grabbed his sister by the arm. “We’ve got to get you out of this stadium. They’ll find you again if you stick around.” “Oh, I can find my own way out. I’m sure you want to get back to the game.” She stood up straight and smiled at them. “But thank you again, I really appreciate it.” He was about to say good-bye when he thought of something. “Did you drive here? Or was your . . . or did you get a ride?” She shrugged. “My ride seems to be long gone, but I’m sure there’s another way to get back to Silver Lake from here. Isn’t there a shuttle or something? Or I can get a ride. I have all of those apps.” He and Angie exchanged glances. He envisioned her waiting in the parking lot at Dodger Stadium for a ride and getting ambushed again. He bet Angie did, too. “Silver Lake is in our direction,” he said. “We can give you a ride back.” He could miss the rest of the game. It wasn’t like they were playing the Giants or anything. She raised her eyebrows at him and turned to Angela to shake her head. “No, seriously, that’s okay. You don’t have to give up the rest of the game for me; you don’t even know me. Plus, you two probably have better things to do than drive a stranger around Los Angeles.” Angela looked confused and then laughed. “Oh wait, did you think we were on a date? Ugh, no, he’s my brother. Trust me, I’d rather be driving you around L.A. than watching baseball with him.” Nicole looked at Carlos. “Are you sure? You really don’t have to.” He grinned and threw his arm around both women. “Call it my good deed for the week,” he said. “Come on, let’s go before those vultures follow you.” Chapter Two . . . . . . . Nik walked across the parking lot with Carlos and Angela. She was grateful the exodus from the game hadn’t started yet, so they didn’t have to wade through crowds of people. The few they did see gave her dirty looks. That’s right, she was the bitch who broke the pretty blond boy’s heart, live on the JumboTron. She shook her head. That really had happened. She had really been proposed to, and then abandoned, in front of the world. She could not believe Fisher had done that to her. Just that he’d proposed to her in the first place was shocking—she would have been certain neither of them thought their relationship was heading toward marriage. She didn’t think either of them wanted their relationship to head toward marriage. But not only did he do it, he did it in public. At a baseball game? Good God, she was furious at him. She also felt like a huge asshole. She’d just refused her boyfriend’s proposal in front of thousands of people. On his birthday. All of the people giving her dirty looks hated her for a good reason. She hadn’t meant to hurt Fisher! He was a perfectly nice, incredibly boring guy. She probably could have found a nicer way to respond to the proposal, but she was so stunned she couldn’t think straight. Plus, diplomacy had never been her strong point. Thank God she’d gotten rescued by the Wonder Twins here. She should probably be wary of getting in a car with two strangers who had picked her up at a baseball stadium at a low moment in her life, but she didn’t have the energy. She should especially be wary of this guy, who seemed way too attractive for his own good, with his tousled dark brown hair, big brown eyes, and that slight Saturday scruff on his cheeks. Normal Nik wouldn’t have trusted this guy for a second. Dazed by the JumboTron, Nik had told him where she lived. But at this point, she didn’t have the strength to do anything but be relieved she was no longer inside the stadium. “Thanks again for getting me out of there. I was just sitting there texting my girlfriends about this fiasco and trying to figure out how I was going to get home when the camera crew showed up. I still can’t believe any of this happened.” Carlos unlocked his car, one of the fancy red sports cars she was used to seeing around L.A. Ah, yes, of course the kind of guy who would almost knock down the cameraman and smile while he did it would have a red sports car. He opened the front passenger door for her. She shook her head. “Oh no, I can get in the back.” Angela laughed and opened the back door. “Don’t worry about it, Nikole. I think you deserve shotgun today.” “Nik.” She needed to make this one thing clear, even though she was only going to know these people for the length of the car ride to Silver Lake. “Everyone calls me Nik. My first name is Nikole, yes, but it’s Nikole with a K.” Angela looked at Nik for a long beat, her hand still on the open back door. “But didn’t the screen spell it . . .” “With a C? It sure did!” She got into the passenger seat and put her seatbelt on, and Angela slid into the seat behind her. “You do not mean to tell me he spelled your name wrong in his proposal?” Angela said. “That’s exactly what I’m telling you. Only one of the many things that stunned me about this afternoon.” Her pocket buzzed. “Wait, hold that thought, I have to tell my friends my ride is taken care of.” She had forty-three new text messages. “Shit.” She clicked on her messages and let out a deep breath. Okay, thirty-three of the messages were from the group chat with her girlfriends, first their reactions to her initial texts about the proposal and then their increasingly agitated texts asking her where the hell she was when she stopped responding. Sorry sorry, camera crew was in my face, some strangers rescued me, getting a ride back to the eastside from them right now, long story. Meet me at the bar within the hour. She scrolled to her other new messages. Two were work related, she would deal with those after she’d recovered from the hangover she had every intention of having tomorrow morning. Oh my God, three were from people she knew who had been at Dodger Stadium that afternoon and had seen her on the JumboTron. There were more than eighteen million people in the greater Los Angeles area, she knew no more than a few hundred of them, max, and three of those had just HAPPENED to be at Dodger Stadium the one time in her life she was there, just so they could see the craziest thing that had ever happened to her? This was like some sort of sick joke. And the other five texts were from Fisher. You fucking bitch, I can’t believe She turned the phone off and dropped it in her pocket. So Fisher wasn’t a perfectly nice guy after all. She wasn’t even going to think about looking at those texts until she had at least two or three shots of bourbon in her. “Everything okay?” Carlos asked, glancing over from the driver’s seat. She laughed, even though none of this was really funny. Now she understood what hysterical laughter really meant. “As okay as anything can get today, I guess. Sorry for zoning out like that, I had a bunch of texts. My friends are very relieved that I got out of there in one piece.” “God, me, too,” Carlos said. “When we saw that camera crew coming for you, I was worried that you’d either punch them all and run or burst into tears.” “Believe me, I was contemplating both,” Nik said. “Unfortunately, I don’t exactly know how to land a punch, and I didn’t really want to get filmed crying on top of everything else.” He grinned at her, and she grinned back. It was refreshing to be around a guy who would joke with her like this after months of Fisher, who would only look at her blankly. “Where to?” Carlos asked. “Do you want us to drop you at home, or at a friend’s house, or . . . ?” She was glad that she’d already made plans to meet Courtney and Dana at the bar, otherwise Dazed-by-the-JumboTron Nik probably would have given the first guy she’d met in forever who had a sense of humor her home address. “There’s a bar on Sunset that has a bottle of bourbon with my name all over it. My friends are meeting me there to hopefully get me drunk enough so that I forget this day ever happened.” “I cannot believe he spelled your name wrong,” Angela muttered from the back seat. “To be fair to him, we’d only been dating for five months, maybe he just hadn’t absorbed that bit of knowledge about me yet.” “Wait, WHAT?” She’d thought that Angela was the loud one, but Carlos nearly shouted that. “You’d only been dating for five months, and he proposed? In public?” If she had to pick a strange man to rescue her, at least it was one who was outraged by the right things. “Exactly! We’d only been dating for five months, he proposed, in public. And I’m the bad guy for rejecting him on his birthday?” “You are not the bad guy,” Carlos said. “Trust me on this.” She was tempted to text Fisher back, curse him out from here to oblivion, and tell him what she really thought of his acting, but she restrained herself. Barely. Angela piped up from the back seat. “So, how long have you lived in L.A., Nik?” She was grateful for the opportunity to talk about something else. “For about six years, but I’ve lived in California most of my life. What about you guys?” “Born and raised on the Eastside,” Carlos said. “Don’t let my big brother over here act like he’s got Eastside cred; he’s been living on the Westside for years and just moved back, thank goodness.” “Thank goodness?” Carlos said. “This is the first I’ve heard of my little sister being thankful that I’m back on the Eastside. Thank goodness for what, so you can have someone to come over to your house and kill spiders for you in the middle of the night?” “Exactly!” Angela said. “That, and someone to build my IKEA furniture for me, and to dog sit for me when I go out of town.” Carlos somehow managed to roll his eyes while keeping both eyes on the road. “You don’t even have a dog!” “But I might! Someday!” The siblings’ friendly bickering kept her entertained for the rest of the ride to the bar. And more importantly, it kept her distracted enough so she didn’t text Fisher back. By the time they pulled up to the Sanctuary, the bar that she and her girlfriends had been coming to for almost as long as she’d lived in L.A., she’d even managed to laugh a few times at the stories that Carlos and Angela told about each other. “You guys are going to come in, right?” she asked them. “I owe you far more than a drink for what you did for me today, but we can start with that.” Carlos and Angela exchanged a quick glance. It was a look full of wordless communication, but she couldn’t tell whether it was “This woman seems crazy, let’s get the fuck out of here” or just “I was getting carsick in the back seat, let’s get a drink.” “Sure,” Carlos said. “I was about to get another beer anyway right when all the action started at the game.” She felt her shoulders relax as soon as the three of them walked inside the bar. The dark, cool interior was such a relief after the unrelenting bright sunlight that she’d been enduring all day. She pushed her sunglasses up to the top of her head, where they would undoubtedly get caught in her hair within minutes, and glanced toward the corner of the room. Her friends Courtney and Dana were right there, waiting for her in their favorite booth. “I made it,” she said as she walked up to them. “Where’s my drink?” “There.” Dana pointed behind her. She turned around, and the bartender, who had been pouring them drinks at least twice a week for the past four years, handed her a glass of bourbon with one big ice cube. That was fast. Granted, they were regulars there, but this was a record. Courtney and Dana must have told Pete that something was up. “Thanks, Pete. Get my friends here whatever they want, please? On me.” As Pete took their orders, she slid into the curved booth next to Courtney. “Hey,” Courtney said. “You okay?” She leaned her head against Courtney’s shoulder for the briefest of moments. “I’m fine. Just kind of shell-shocked at what just happened, I think.” She motioned for Carlos and Angela to join her in the booth. “Dana and Courtney, meet Carlos and Angela. They saved me in about a dozen different ways this afternoon, and I will owe them far more than my firstborn child. Carlos and Angela, these are my friends Dana and Courtney, who were about to come to Dodger Stadium and carry me away from that godforsaken place, so it turns out you saved them, too.” Just then, the bartender brought two more drinks to the table. “A toast!” Nik said when the drinks were on the table. “To friendship, both real and feigned.” They all clinked glasses, and Nik took a deep gulp of her bourbon. “Okay,” Courtney said. “We need details. What did that toast mean? He seriously proposed? For the record, I never liked Fisher. He was never nice to me—I don’t think fat Korean women were in his target demographic. Where is he now? Did he cry? Tell us everything.” Nik took a deep breath. She still couldn’t believe this had actually happened to her. Dana patted her on the shoulder and shook her head at Courtney. “Let her finish her drink first! You don’t have to tell us the story right now. Are you hungry? Should we get pizza? What kind should we get?” She definitely wasn’t drunk yet, but pizza sounded incredible right now. “Absolutely. Fisher hasn’t eaten carbs in like two years, so pizza sounds fantastic. I don’t care what’s on it as long as it includes pepperoni and lots of cheese.” Dana pulled out her phone and opened a delivery app. “Are you two in, too?” she asked Carlos and Angela. They both nodded. After a few clicks, Dana looked up from her phone. “Okay, it’s on its way here. Where were we?” She took another sip of her drink. Thank God for bourbon. “I don’t know where we were, but to tell the story backward, that toast was because these two pretended to be long-lost friends of mine to save me from a camera crew. God bless them.” “A camera crew?” Courtney stared at her, then at Carlos and Angela, Nik guessed to confirm she hadn’t lost her mind. “Yep.” Carlos nodded. “We were sitting a few rows behind Nik and saw the whole proposal happen. And then when we saw the camera crew walking toward her, we knew we had to do something.” “Where did you even come up with that idea? That was brilliant!” Dana said. He nodded and lifted his glass. “Thank you for that; I agree, it was brilliant.” He grinned at Nik, and despite herself, she grinned back at him. “But I have to admit, the credit all goes to our cousin Jessie. She told me a story once about a woman in a parking lot doing that to her when there was a creepy guy following her, and I guess it stuck with me.” Angela laughed. “I was going to let my brother take the credit for that idea, even though I knew he got it from Jessie. I’m just glad to know he pays attention to the women in his family.” Nik couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a man voluntarily give credit to a woman for an idea. That was one of the major reasons she’d gone freelance, all of the men talking over her and pretending they’d come up with her ideas, even when everyone had heard her say them out loud. “Oh, please,” Carlos said. “I pay probably too much attention to all of you.” Nik finished her drink, and within seconds another one showed up on the table in front of her. “Thanks, Pete,” she, Courtney, and Dana said in unison. “You three must tip very well,” Carlos said. They all laughed. “That, and Pete’s had a crush on Dana for at least two years,” Courtney said. Dana grinned and shrugged. “Okay, okay.” Nik took a sip of her new drink and set it down. “And now for my part of the story. Here is the most important thing: I had NO IDEA that anything like this was coming. I was racking my brain on the way here for where this came from, and I swear, I had no hints.” She’d actually started wondering within the last few weeks how much longer this Fisher thing would last. Not only did he bore her, but she didn’t really think he was all that interested in her, either. She didn’t look like the models his friends all dated, he didn’t even pretend to be interested in her work, and she found his laughable. A great recipe for a marriage! “Anyway. The game was whatever, fine, boring, sunny, et cetera. And then all of a sudden, Fisher told me to look at something. I thought it was some stupid baseball thing, so I looked at the field, but then he pointed toward the JumboTron. And up there, in twelve-foot-high letters, was something like ‘I love you, will you marry me?’” “You forgot the most important part,” Angela said. “It said ‘Nicole, I love you, will you marry me?’ Nicole with a C!” Dana and Courtney gasped in unison. The appropriate response. “He spelled your name wrong in his proposal?” Courtney asked. “Yes!” Nik said. “But wait, think about that part later, let me get the whole story out first. So when I saw the thing up on the screen, I thought it was some sort of joke or that he was just showing me because that’s my name and it was someone else in the stadium, or something like that. He’d never even said I love you to me before—which, if he had, this whole nightmare today never would have happened, because I’d have cut that thing off in a heartbeat, but anyway. Wait, where was I?” “You saw it up on the screen . . . ?” Dana prompted her. “Oh, yeah. So I turned to him, and he was down on one knee. With a ring box in his hand!” “What did the ring look like?” Courtney asked. “The ring?” Nik paused. She’d been so freaked out at the time she hadn’t even looked at it. “I have no idea. I don’t think I even saw it. Hell, I don’t even remember what I said to him, something about how we should have talked about this before, and then he said something like, ‘Are you saying no?’ and I told him I wasn’t saying that out loud, and then he told me to just live a little. LIVE A LITTLE. Like deciding to get married on a whim is the thing all the cool girls are doing these days. And when I again refused, he got furious and stood up and left and his friends followed him.” She turned to Carlos. “Did I forget anything?” Carlos made a face. Oh shit, what had she forgotten? “Just that . . . just that there was a camera on you the whole time, so the entire thing was broadcast to the whole stadium. No one could hear what you were saying—I mean, we could, we were just a few rows behind you and your dude talked pretty loudly—but what was going on was probably pretty clear to everyone.” “Oh yeah, right. That part.” Nik put her head down on the table. “I think I need to just stay here for the next few days. Throw a blanket over me and just leave me here in the bar, and for the love of God, take my phone with you. Maybe by the time I resurface, everyone will forget that any of this ever happened.” Dana patted Nik on the back and Courtney took the phone that Nik had tossed on the table and tucked it away in her pocket. Someone pushed her drink against her hand. She grabbed it, lifted her head, took a sip, and put her head back down on the table. Thank God for bourbon. “Did I forget anything else?” Nik sat up and pushed her hair back. “I saw the ring,” Angela said. “WHAT?” the whole table said in unison. Angela looked at Carlos. “You didn’t see it? Oh yeah. He opened the ring box when he first got down on one knee, and the camera zeroed in on the ring. I can’t believe you didn’t notice.” She knew there was a reason she’d wanted Carlos and Angela to stay. “Well?” Nik asked. “Don’t keep me in suspense. What did it look like? Please tell me you remember.” Angela paused. “Okay, you know the Kate Middleton ring, right? The Princess Diana one? With the huge sapphire in the middle and diamonds all around it? It looked just like that. Except smaller.” Nik banged her drink down on the table. It sloshed everywhere, but she was past the point of caring. “Does he think he’s some kind of a prince?” She took a deep breath. “Wait, that sounded mean. That was mean, I guess. But . . .” “But you are not a princess ring kind of person,” Courtney finished. “But I am not a princess ring kind of person!” Nik said. “Nothing against princess rings, but IF I wanted an engagement ring from him—which I absolutely did not—it wouldn’t have been a replica of a princess ring. He obviously doesn’t know me that well; I’m not a baseball-game proposal kind of person, either. But seriously, a princess ring? For ME?” “You did get up at four a.m. to watch Harry and Meghan’s wedding though,” Dana said. “That was different,” Nik said. “Anyway, is there anything else I missed about the proposal?” she asked Carlos and Angela. “Am I remembering the forlorn look on Fisher’s face correctly?” Carlos shrugged. “He looked more outraged than forlorn, really. Like a kid having a tantrum.” Yeah . . . that sounded like Fisher, unfortunately. She mopped up her spilled drink with some of the extra napkins Pete had left on the table. “Carlos is right,” Angela said. “No offense, but he seemed like kind of a baby.” Nik shrugged and sighed. Fisher had been kind of a baby. A baby with beautiful blond hair he constantly admired in the mirror and great abs. So yeah, it made sense that he would yell and storm off when she’d publicly rejected his proposal. “None taken. He was kind of a baby. But babies can be pretty great sometimes—isn’t that why people like them?” Carlos cleared his throat. “As a professional baby expert: people like babies because they’re cute, they have big heads, and because they’re pretty helpless without us. They can scream really loudly, though.” Courtney nodded. “Yep, that sounds like Fisher. Down to the big—” “COURTNEY!” Dana and Courtney giggled and high-fived, and Nik tried and failed to suppress her laughter. “You two are the worst friends in the history of the world, do you know that?” They nodded, still laughing. “We know,” Dana said. * * * • • • Carlos coughed. Maybe they needed a reminder that there was a guy at the table with them? Nope, that just made all four women, his little sister included, glance his way and laugh harder. Excellent. He looked at Nik, who was looking back at him. She winked at him. He grinned and winked back. One of the friends’ phone buzzed. Dana, right? She was the black one who looked like a model. Courtney was the Korean one with pink lipstick on. “Pizza’s here!” she said. A few minutes later, a huge pizza box covered their table, and they all had big pieces of pizza in their hands, the pepperoni oil dripping onto more napkins that the bartender had thrown onto their table. “I didn’t even ask if anyone was a vegetarian or gluten-free or anything,” Dana said. He and Angela both shook their heads. “This is a Los Angeles rarity, to have five people at a table all dig into a cheese-covered, two-meat, gluten-filled pizza without hesitating.” Nik lifted her almost empty glass. “To new friends and gluten!” They all toasted and stuffed pizza into their mouths. “Wait.” Nik looked up at him and started to say something, but stopped to finish chewing her bite of pizza. “Did you say a few minutes ago that you’re a baby expert?” His sister just shook her head. “My brother. Always with the delusions of grandeur.” He had the opportunity to impress three attractive women with his degrees and knowledge—could his sister at least try to be a good wingman here? “I’m a pediatrician, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t see a lot of babies anymore. I’m the assistant director of the teen clinic at Eastside Medical Center.” “Oh.” Nik put her pizza down and reached for a napkin. “You’re a doctor.” Okay, he’d never had a woman with that look on her face when he’d said he was a doctor. Like she’d smelled something bad. “Oooh, you brought us a doctor?” Courtney poked Nik. Nik looked at Dana and rolled her eyes. “A doctor,” Courtney said, presumably to the table at large. “That’s a normal job. I didn’t think people in L.A. had normal jobs anymore. All of the jobs here are, like, writer, magician, fit model, actor, cupcake baker, dog walker, social media manager, juice shop cashier, and nonsense like that.” “Well, what do you all do?” he asked Nik and her friends. “Writer,” Nik said. “Cupcake baker,” Courtney said. “Actor,” Dana said. He and Angela both laughed, but they didn’t. “Oh wait. You’re serious?” Nik nodded and sipped at the dregs of her drink. “It’s true. We’re a parody of L.A. sitting right here.” She turned to Angela. “What about you? You are also probably something normal, like a teacher or a social worker or an accountant.” “Marketing, for one of the studios,” Angie said. “I’m also a parody. Granted, I got my MBA first, so I could have done a normal job, but no, I went straight for the L.A. stereotype.” “What kind of stuff do you write?” Carlos asked Nik. “Lots of entertainment and celebrity-related stuff, and some more newsy journalism occasionally.” “What about Fisher?” Carlos couldn’t keep himself from asking. “Was he also an L.A. stereotype, or was he a lawyer or trader or something?” Nik shook her head. “Actor! I should have known! Never date an actor; you get proposed to in public with a fucking princess ring.” She took another bite of pizza and swallowed it. “Sorry, Dana. No offense.” “None taken,” Dana said. Nik sighed. “Speaking of Fisher . . . he sent me some texts after he left the game. I only saw a glimpse of one of them, but . . . it wasn’t so great. I guess I probably need to read the rest, right?” Ahh, that’s probably what she had been looking at when her face shuttered when they were in the car. She probably didn’t want to talk about this with strangers around. Carlos caught Angela’s eye, and she nodded. “Ladies, my sister and I should take off. We have a family event that we have to get to and we can’t be late.” “Oh!” Nik looked up. Was it just his imagination that her face fell? “If you have to go, I understand. But you guys, I can’t thank you enough for today; you two saved me on what was maybe one of the weirdest days of my life.” Angela stood up, and all of the women followed her out of the booth. “It was our pleasure,” she said. Nik threw her arms around Angie and whispered something in her ear that made her laugh. Then she moved over to Carlos. “Carlos, thank you so much.” She gave him a tight hug and a kiss on the cheek. He almost kissed her back, but stopped himself just in time. She’d probably had enough out of men today. “Glad we could help.” Dana and Courtney both hugged him, too. “Thanks for taking care of our girl until she could get back to us. You are the prince of the day,” Dana said. He and Angie left Nik and her friends to dissect the texts, something he knew women loved to do. * * * • • • “That was nice of him, to leave just then,” Dana said, after the three of them sat back down in their booth alone. “What do you mean?” Nik said as she reached for another piece of pizza. “They said they had a family thing.” Dana rolled her eyes. “Sure they did. He wanted to let you show us Fisher’s texts without him around, so he made up some reason to leave.” She took a sip of her drink. “I don’t often say this about men, but I liked him.” Courtney nodded. “I liked him, too. You know what I think?” Oh God. Whenever Courtney asked that question, either something great or something terrible was on its way. Sometimes it was a little bit of both. Nik rested her chin on her hand and closed her eyes. “What do you think?” “I think Carlos should be your rebound.” This time it was just terrible. “Dana, talk some sense into her, please.” Nik looked from Dana to Courtney. “Number one, Fisher and I broke up, like two hours ago. Number two, Carlos seems like a very nice guy, but he’s a doctor, come on.” Dana looked at her blankly. “And?” What was wrong with them? “And Justin was a doctor, remember?” Dana and Courtney looked at each other, then back at her. “Yes, Justin was a doctor,” Dana said, in her most patient voice. Nik hated that voice. “That doesn’t mean that all doctors are assholes.” That’s not what she meant and they knew it. Well, okay. That was kind of what she meant. But still. “Justin was a surgeon.” Courtney took a gulp of her drink and slammed the empty glass onto the table. “That’s different than a pediatrician.” Not that different. She hadn’t seen or talked to Justin in years, but she remembered him and his God complex all too well. “Plus,” Courtney said, “Carlos is hot. I would go for him myself, but he was staring at you all night.” Nik rolled her eyes and drained her glass. “That is not true.” “Oh, come on,” Dana said. “Even I think he was hot, and I’m a lesbian.” Nik shook her head. “I’m not arguing that point. Of course he’s hot, did you see those forearms? I meant it’s not true that he was staring at me all night.” Courtney and Dana looked at each other and laughed. There was no point in arguing with them about this. Especially since she wasn’t even sure if she was right. “You have a rebound with Carlos if you want,” she said to Courtney. “I’m taking a vow of celibacy. Men are clearly not for me at this point in my life.” Dana and Courtney dissolved into laughter. “No really, you guys. I mean it!” Their heads were down on the table. Courtney’s face was possibly buried in a slice of pizza? It apparently didn’t matter, they were still laughing. “I’m not joking! I need a break. Once you find yourself on the JumboTron with a guy kneeling at your feet with a princess ring in his hand, you start to reevaluate your life, okay?” Courtney sat up, a piece of pepperoni in her bangs. After that performance, Nik wasn’t going to tell her it was there. Dana gulped down the rest of her drink and waved Pete over for more drinks. “A pitcher of water, too, please,” Nik said to him. “I want to be able to at least somewhat function tomorrow.” As soon as he walked away, Dana turned to her. “If we say we believe you and your vow of celibacy, can we get back to Fisher’s texts?” “We believe you, we believe you,” Courtney said, the pepperoni bobbing up and down as she nodded her head. They did not actually believe her, she knew that, but there was no point in arguing with them right now. They’d see. She took her phone back from Courtney. “Here.” Nik unlocked the phone and pushed it across the table. “After the glimpse that I saw, I don’t know if I want to see the rest.” Dana picked up the phone and Courtney looked over her shoulder. Nik looked at their faces as they scrolled through the messages. After about two seconds, they both looked ready to kill. “That bad, huh?” she asked. Courtney’s eyes narrowed at the phone. Oh no, it was even worse than she’d thought. “Okay. What do they say?” Dana cleared her throat. Thank God neither of them offered to just delete them for her. Her friends knew her far too well for that. “‘You fucking bitch, I can’t believe you did that to me on my birthday.’ That was the first one,” Dana said. “‘I can’t believe you would be that stupid. I was the best thing that ever happened to you.’” Dana looked up from the phone. Nik nodded for her to continue. “‘You’re such a’—I’m not saying that word—‘my friends always said so. I saw your potential when no one else did. You were lucky to be with me, you’re never going to get the chance again. No one else will ever love an unfeeling bitch like you.’” Well, at least she didn’t need to feel guilty about hurting him anymore. “I don’t want anyone else to ever love this unfeeling bitch. Something terrible always happens when a man says ‘I love you.’ First, Justin said it and then he tried to sabotage my career, then Fisher said it and I get put on a big screen and he texts insults to me. If that’s what love means, no thank you.” Dana took a sip of her drink and kept reading. “‘You’re going to die alone, and you could have been my princess.’ There are five exclamation points at the end of the word princess. FYI.” At least that made her laugh. Thank God for unnecessary exclamation points. “Okay, and here’s the pièce de résistance.” Dana pushed the phone over to her, and she looked at the picture that filled the screen: Fisher, Dodgers cap on backward, middle finger in the air, with the princess engagement ring on said finger. “OH MY GOD.” Dana and Courtney exploded with laughter. Courtney’s head shook so much that the pepperoni finally fell onto the table and she didn’t even notice. Nik laughed until tears streamed out of her eyes. They collapsed against the booth cushions, laughing so much and so loudly that even the too-cool-for-school dudes at the end of the bar turned and stared. “Are you KIDDING me? Is this some collective hallucination? What was IN those drinks that Pete brought us? Since when is Fisher Vanilla freaking Ice?” “Well.” Nik managed to stop laughing and reached for what was definitely her final drink. “I feel better already.” Chapter Three . . . . . . . On Monday morning, Nik stared at her laptop from the other side of the room. It wouldn’t stop pinging at her. She’d turned the sound off, she’d moved over to the couch, but she knew it was still happening. It had been almost forty-eight hours since the nightmare proposal, and she was getting hundreds of messages in a constant stream through every possible avenue. She’d had so many texts when she’d woken up the day before that she’d thought her phone had malfunctioned. Apparently, her JumboTron moment had been on SportsCenter on Saturday night. And then again on Sunday. She’d had no idea that she knew so many people who regularly watched SportsCenter. To make things even worse, some enterprising person had tagged her on Twitter with the video of the proposal, so she was getting thousands of tweets about it. The bulk of them ranged from insulting to abusive, with a lot of just plain mean thrown in for kicks. A lot of men out there seemed personally insulted that she, a black woman, had rejected a white man. Most of their messages to her used either her least favorite insult for women or her least favorite insult for black people and, in many cases, both. Until she’d blocked Fisher’s number, he’d also kept sending her messages, and most of them weren’t as unintentionally funny as the Vanilla Ice picture. The last few had been kind of scary, and she didn’t scare easily. The whole time she had to keep tweeting her way through it, because she used Twitter professionally, and she refused to let on that any of these assholes were upsetting her. Plus, that was her “brand” and all—that kind of sarcastic, witty, tough-skinned woman who nothing could bother. She had to pretend to be laughing with the rest of the world about what a bitch she was, retweet a few stupid memes with her face on them, and make a joke on Facebook about her relationship status changing, when she felt overwhelmed and outnumbered the whole time. At least she hadn’t seen any footage of Carlos and Angela posted anywhere. They’d probably jumped in before that camera crew had gotten anything worth posting. Whatever it was, she was grateful for it. She wouldn’t have wanted them to get dragged into this chaos or to get punished by the whole world for their good deed. Good deeds—plural. Not only had they pulled her away from the camera crew, gotten her away from the stadium of doom, and delivered her to her friends, but as she’d discovered on Saturday night after winning the fight with Dana and Courtney to pay their bar tab, Carlos had already paid for it. And she didn’t even know his last name, or how to get in touch with him to thank him. “Wait a minute, Nikole,” she said out loud. She talked to herself a lot when she was alone in her apartment, which was frequently. “You are a journalist. You should be able to find this man in less than five minutes.” It took her about a minute and a half. There he was, Carlos Ibarra, picture and all, on the website of his hospital. Thank God the bourbon on Saturday hadn’t dulled her memory. There was no email address listed, but she clicked around the hospital website to see what the other email addresses at his hospital looked like. She jumped over to her email account, opened the “compose” pane, and tried to ignore the dozens of new emails that had come in since she’d last looked. To: Carlos_Ibarra@eastsidemedicalcenter.com From: Nikole@NikoleDPaterson.com Subject: Thanks again Hi! It’s me, your friendly non-princess from Saturday. I just wanted to a) thank you again for everything you did, and b) yell at you for not letting me buy you the drink I owed you afterward. I don’t know if you saw, but the whole proposal has kind of gone viral, which . . . is an experience, that’s for sure. Anyway, I hope you’re well, and thank your sister for me, too! Nik She typed the email in a hurry and pressed send before she could reconsider. Her friends would be so triumphant if they knew she’d emailed him. They would think she bought into their stupid rebound idea, when that wasn’t at all the case. Obviously she found him attractive—she wasn’t made of stone—but just as obviously, it was the wrong time to get involved with anyone. She just wanted to thank him again for saving her, that was all. Of course it wasn’t until after she’d hit send that she thought about the major downside of actually sending an email right now—she’d have to look at her incoming messages to see if he responded. She couldn’t even get any work done. The story she’d been working on at the baseball game was still stuck in the same place it had been when Fisher had told her to look at the JumboTron screen. She’d been halfway through a sentence, and now she had no idea how the sentence was supposed to end. She probably had important work-related emails, but she’d have to wade through the hundreds of other messages to find them. She threw her arms in the air, went into her bedroom, put on the first real clothes she found, and left to go for a walk. Without her phone. By the time she’d walked the thirty minutes to Courtney’s cupcake shop, she felt a little better. Despite herself, the fresh air and the blue sky made her relax, and the physical activity even cheered her up a little. When she walked into Cupcake Park, she didn’t quite have a smile on her face, but at least she could tell the scowl had gone away. “Hey!” Courtney was alone in the shop when she came in, wearing her trademark pink lipstick and a pink polka-dot apron. “You haven’t been answering your phone. Dana and I have both been trying to call. How are you doing?” She groaned and leaned against the counter. Courtney’s brightly colored cupcakes, all decorated with frosting flowers or trees, stared back up at her from the other side. “Coffee, please?” She shouldn’t have even bothered to ask. Courtney had already poured cups full for both of them and set one of each of her favorite cupcake flavors in front of her. “You’re the best, thanks.” “We both know that,” Courtney said. The bell rang, and Nik stepped aside so that the three teenage girls who came in could see and debate their cupcake choices. By the time they left five minutes later, Nik had finished her lemon cupcake and most of her coffee. Courtney poured her a new cup. “How did business go today?” Courtney had opened her cupcake shop just under a year ago, and there had been a number of touch-and-go moments with it, but lately business looked like it was picking up. “It was great. There was a line out the door for like half the day, and I just got two big orders, including one for a wedding.” Courtney looked hard at Nik. “But I know you didn’t walk all the way over here to find out how my business is going. How are you? How bad is it?” Nik groaned. “It’s so bad.” She took a sip of coffee and reconsidered. “I mean, I’m not dying or anything, and this should all fade away within a few days. But God, it doesn’t feel like that right now. I’m not answering my phone because I had to turn the sound and the vibrate off, and then put it in my refrigerator to chill out, because it feels like the whole world is calling me or texting me. I needed a break.” She could not tell Courtney that she’d emailed Carlos. She would do her “I told you so” dance around the whole cupcake shop. Had Carlos replied to her email yet? Ugh, she wished she’d brought her phone, just so she’d know. Courtney checked the time and walked over to flip the sign on the door from OPEN to CLOSED. “Do you think all of the proposal brouhaha will blow over?” Nik grabbed a broom to help Courtney do her end-of-the-day cleaning of the shop. “I’m sure it will. I just hope it blows over soon. The only email I responded to so far today was from the TODAY show, telling them no, I would not come on the show to talk about the proposal. I’m kind of worried that Fisher will say yes to them or someone like them, but there’s nothing I can do to stop that, and I feel like reaching out to him at this point is a very bad idea.” “Have you heard anything more from him?” Courtney tossed Nik a cloth to wipe down the countertops while she packed away the rest of the cupcakes. “Unfortunately, yes. I’ve blocked him everywhere, which probably means he’s saying all sorts of shit about me that I can’t see, but at this point, that’s better than the alternative.” Courtney turned on Missy Elliott to keep them company as they cleaned up. “Oh, I’ll find out what he’s saying about you, don’t worry about that.” Courtney had an evil grin on her face that Nik decided not to ask about. It was probably better that she be ignorant of whatever Courtney was planning to do to Fisher. “Want a ride home?” Courtney asked her. “Dinner? Leftover cupcakes?” “No, no, and yes. Or rather, no, yes, and yes. Have I ever said no to leftover cupcakes? But I can walk home. I need to work up my appetite for these.” Courtney filled up a box of cupcakes and put it in one of her pink and white bags. “Let me know if you need anything else. And if you need company tonight, I can be there at the snap of your fingers; you know that, right?” Nik walked around the counter to give Courtney a hug. “I know. Thanks.” Of course, once Nik walked home, she’d started to regret not getting a ride from Courtney. Not because the walk tired her out, but because she wished she wasn’t alone. As she approached her building she was on high alert for Fisher’s silver sports car in the area. “You’re being stupid,” she said to herself on her doorstep. “Also, you’re talking to yourself in public this time; you should really save that for inside the house, Nikole.” She unlocked her front door, and then hesitated on the threshold. Finally, she grabbed a cast-iron pan from her kitchen and, feeling like an idiot the entire time, looked in every hiding place in her apartment. After finding nothing other than a lot more dirty laundry than she thought she’d had, she tried to relax and sat back down at her laptop to check her email. Fifty-seven more people had emailed her in the two hours that she’d been gone. And not a single one of the fifty-seven was named Carlos Ibarra. * * * • • • “It was like this, Dr. Ibarra,” Luke, his newest patient said. “There was this girl, right?” Carlos laughed. “How did I know that that’s how this story was going to start? But keep going, all of the best stories start that way.” Carlos listened to the kid’s story, took notes, gave him both medical advice—for the sprained ankle that he got from running down the street with the girl (rest, ice, elevation, lots of ibuprofen) and the rash he’d gotten from hiding in the poison-oak-laced bushes behind her house (a prescription cream)—and general life advice (girls who make you go through dangerous situations to prove your worth to them are always exciting at first and then you regret it). That, of course, made him think about how he’d shoved that cameraman out of the way in order to get Nik safely out of Dodger Stadium. The difference, though, was that was his idea, not hers. But he understood where his patient was coming from—he still felt a rush when he thought about swooping down on Nik and getting her out of the stadium. It was probably just because he didn’t do anything dangerous these days other than driving too fast. He’d had SportsCenter in the background on Sunday morning and was engrossed in the Sunday L.A. Times movie section, when he’d heard the announcer say “Can you believe what happened to this poor guy?” He’d looked up at the screen, just in time to see Nik’s wide-open mouth and Man Bun drop down onto one knee. He’d been wondering all day how Nik was doing. He wished he’d figured out a way to smoothly get her phone number before he and Angie had left the bar. Maybe sometime he would go back to see if he could accidentally run into her there. She said she and her friends went to that bar a lot, right? He went back to his office after that appointment, hopefully his last one of the day, unless there was an emergency in the next hour and a half. He typed his notes from his appointments into the online system, making sure to only note the parent-friendly details from the stories that the teens had told him since their parents all had access to their information. With just half an hour to go until his Monday was over, he clicked over to his work email, to see what stupid administrative tasks people had sent him this time. Nikole Paterson? He clicked on the screen so fast that he accidentally clicked on the email below it first, and had to skim through a message about vaccinations before he realized what was happening and went back. “I don’t know if you saw, but the whole proposal has kind of gone viral.” He had, in fact, noticed that the whole proposal had gone viral. She must have heard from everyone she knew, and then some. He had no idea how she’d found his email address, but he was glad she had. To: Nikole@NikoleDPaterson.com From: Carlos_Ibarra@eastsidemedicalcenter.com Hey! Good to hear from you. I figured you’d want to yell at me about the drinks, but I also figured you and your friends already had too much bourbon to figure out a bill. And yeah, I saw you on SportsCenter. Have you gotten emails and texts from literally everyone you know? Carlos He got an email back right before he was about to leave the office. To: Carlos_Ibarra@eastsidemedicalcenter.com From: Nikole@NikoleDPaterson.com To answer your question, every single other email in my inbox has the subject line “Was that you?” or “OMG that was you!” and I can’t bear to look at any of them. So yes, I’ve gotten texts and emails (and Facebook messages, and tweets, and LinkedIn messages, for the love of God) from literally everyone I know. I have ignored all of them so far and have been hiding in my apartment almost all day, with a brief excursion to pick up cupcakes from Courtney’s shop, but I’m going a little stir-crazy. Nik Was that a hint? She didn’t seem like a hinting kind of person, but maybe? To: Nikole@NikoleDPaterson.com From: Carlos_Ibarra@eastsidemedicalcenter.com If you’re in the mood for a friendly face tonight, let me know. About to leave work, want to grab dinner? Text me, I’m at 310-555-4827. I promise I won’t say “OMG that was you!” Carlos He double-checked his phone all the way to the parking garage, but nothing. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a hint. Damn it. It had been a long time since he’d met someone who could laugh at herself the way Nik could, even in the middle of a crisis. Also, he’d really liked the way she’d looked in that snug baseball T-shirt and those jeans, he wasn’t going to lie. He’d seen way too many accidents in his stint working in the ER to check his phone while he was driving, but he had to fight himself more than once from reaching for it on the way home. But when he pulled up to his apartment and grabbed it out of his pocket, there was nothing other than five group texts about his basketball league. Just as he walked in the door, his phone chimed. Going to take you up on that offer for dinner, but this time it’s my treat. What time and where? Not a bar, though, I’m still recovering from Saturday. He was so busy grinning down at his phone that he almost tripped over the Amazon box in his entryway. Worth it. 7:30? Thai? There’s a fun place on Sunset, do you know it? Night+Market? She did know it. He changed into jeans and his favorite T-shirt, killed some time by replying to all of the basketball messages with trash talk, and walked back out the door. He put his name on the list and hung out by the door and pretended to be absorbed in his phone. She walked in the door at 7:33, not that he was checking. She stood at the door and peered around the restaurant, a guarded look on her face, her sunglasses again tucked into her dark curly hair. “Hey!” He waved at her. Her face relaxed into a grin when she saw him. She was wearing jeans and a black shirt that looked better on her than any plain black shirt had a right to look. “Hey yourself. Thank you for rescuing me yet again. If you hadn’t suggested dinner, I would have had a half-dozen cupcakes for dinner, hated myself for it, and then had another half dozen for dessert.” He laughed. “Thai food is definitely a much better idea. Where’d all the cupcakes come from?” She leaned against the wall next to him. “I forced myself out of the house today and walked to Courtney’s shop. I hung around until closing and she gave me the leftovers.” “That’s convenient to have a friend with a cupcake store.” Now that he was looking at her closely, he could see a spot of white frosting standing out against her warm brown cheek and fought his impulse to wipe it off. “You’re telling me. She usually gives any leftovers to the employees at the other shops nearby, as a sort of goodwill/‘we’re all in this together’ kind of thing, but I guess today she thought my need was more important. I certainly wasn’t going to argue with her.” They made small talk as they waited for their table, too surrounded by other people to talk about anything important. After longer a wait than he’d hoped, the host finally called his name. As Carlos walked behind Nik on the way to a table, he admired her shape in her snug jeans. He was pretty sure this woman hated all men at the moment, but he could look, couldn’t he? They both ordered beer before they opened their menus. “You’re going to have to keep me from ordering everything on the menu, I’m starving,” he said. Nik glanced over the menu and grinned. “Luckily, I heard from you at just the right time before I dove into the box of cupcakes. And I’m glad you wanted to go to this place. I haven’t been here in far too long; Fisher didn’t like spicy food, so . . .” He looked up at her with his eyebrows raised. “Fisher didn’t like spicy food, and you went out with him for more than one date? How did that happen?” She sighed. “Excellent question, really.” The waitress brought their beers, and she took a sip. “Never again, though,” she said. “I’m swearing off actors. You think you’re just casually dating, and then bam, they spring a public proposal on you.” Carlos shook his head. “Is he a real actor or a wannabe one?” She laughed. “You always have to ask that question in L.A., right? A real one, but a terrible one. And that’s not even my rage talking; I thought that even while we were dating.” Oof. This woman did not mince her words. “How did you even meet him?” He shook his head. “You don’t have to answer that. You’re probably sick of even thinking about this. We can talk about work, or our last vacations, or baseball, or whatever.” She widened her eyes in horror. “Good God, not baseball, anything but baseball.” They both laughed. “As for not talking about this, honestly, I wish I could stop thinking about this. I’ve probably thought about Fisher more in the past two days than I did in the entire five months that we were dating, that’s the wild part. But wait, you probably don’t want to hear more about my disastrous love life; you heard plenty on Saturday.” Actually, he’d left right when they’d gotten to the good stuff. And honestly, he was dying to know the details. “If it helps you to talk about it, I’m happy to listen,” he said. Did that sound magnanimous enough? “I talk to teenagers all day; hearing a story about an adult disastrous love life will be refreshing after their stories, I promise.” She pushed her hair out of her face and smiled. “Okay, but you’re going to have to tell me at least one good work story afterward, so I don’t feel like such an idiot. You see teenagers; you must have some great ones.” She glanced down at the menu. “Wait, let’s order first. You already said you were starving.” The waitress stopped at their table, and they ordered far too much food for two people. “What did you ask?” she said when the waitress walked away. “Oh right, how I met Fisher.” She sighed. “Last year, I did a profile of Anna Gardiner for Vogue. She only really got big, like, last summer. Right before she got the role that led to the Oscar nomination and Vogue cover and everything else, she was in a terrible and short-lived TV show. Fisher was her co-star.” He held up his hand to stop her. “I’m sorry, but you got to meet Anna Gardiner? Most famous people are no big deal, a dime a dozen in L.A., blah blah, but Anna Gardiner? What was she like? Don’t tell me she was terrible; I loved that movie.” He was so thankful none of his friends were here to witness him babbling about a movie star—they would make fun of him from here to eternity. “She was honestly great! Which is the whole reason I met Fisher, actually. Anna and I got along really well, and she ended up inviting me to her birthday party, and that’s where I met Fisher. When he asked me out, I was positive that he just wanted to go out with me because he wanted me to write a puff piece about him for something. I sort of never stopped thinking that, actually.” She shook her head and laughed. “The funny thing is that whenever I went to industry parties with him, when people I knew through my work saw us together, they would look so confused. A few times, when he was on the other side of the room, they even said to me, ‘You’re here with that guy?’ I was never sure if that was an insult to me, or to him.” The waitress set their spicy and sweet wings down on the table, and they both grabbed one. “Anyway, going out with Fisher was very low-stress, until two days ago. I’ve had such a busy few months of work and Fisher was just a fun guy I hung out with when I had time. I even felt guilty about saying no to his proposal, because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings! That was, until . . . well, apparently, I’m not as good at reading people as I thought I was.” He looked closer at her. He was pretty good at reading people, and she looked really stressed about this whole situation. “Have you heard from him again? Since his bad texts on Saturday?” She looked up at him. “How did you know they were bad?” He gestured to her face. “That same worried look that’s on your face right now was on your face on Saturday night when you told your friends he’d texted you. I figured there was something in there that bothered you, and since you’d just rejected him in front of thousands of people, I assumed it was something pretty nasty.” He held up his hand when she started to protest. “I’m not blaming you for rejecting him in front of thousands of people. As a matter of fact, I was pretty impressed that you were honest with him, instead of being nice to him just to make him feel better. But when I saw that look on your face, I figured he wanted to lash out at you.” She nodded. “He sure did. Which . . . I like revenge as much as the next person, so I get that, but he didn’t have to keep going.” He dropped his chicken and sat up straight. “Is he still texting you?” She shrugged. “I’m not sure. The last text I got from him before I blocked him was ‘Watch your back.’ I’m sure he’s just trying to freak me out. I don’t really think Fisher is the violent-revenge-for-rejecting-him type.” She shook her head. “But I should know better than to say that there’s no such thing as one violent-revenge type; anyone can be like that. I didn’t tell Courtney and Dana about that text. They would have freaked out, moved in with me, firebombed his house, and reported him to the police, probably in that order. Unfortunately, he succeeded in freaking me out, if that was his motive.” He sympathized with Courtney and Dana. He would want to do the same if anyone texted stuff like that to Angela. He reached across the table and touched Nik’s hand. “I’m sorry that happened to you. Are you . . . do you live alone?” He shook his head. “Wow, did that sound creepy. What I meant was, are you okay? Are you worried that he’ll come to your house if you don’t respond to him?” She started to shake her head and stopped. “I wasn’t at first. I do live alone—I probably shouldn’t tell you that; you’re still a stranger, but hey, you have a good sister, you can’t be too terrible—and I wasn’t worried at all yesterday. But then today, after Fisher’s texts, and then all of the tweets and emails from strangers that were way worse than what he said . . . when I walked into my apartment, well. That was another reason I was glad to leave to go to dinner tonight; it was good to get out of there and have some company.” He wanted to ask her what was in those messages from strangers that were way worse than Fisher’s texts, but he wasn’t sure if she wanted to talk about it. And he wasn’t sure if he was ready to hear the response. Two more platters of food landed on their table. He scooped papaya salad and pork belly onto both of their plates. “I’m glad I could help, but it sucks that he’s made you so anxious about this.” She took a bite of the pork belly and grinned. “This is delicious, but also it’s hot as hell.” She squeezed his hand, and he smiled at her. They looked at each other for a long time, their hands still linked across the table. Finally, she broke the eye contact and dropped his hand. “Okay, please, let’s talk about something that isn’t me. I deserve your best teen-client story, after that.” He grinned. “I have a lot of good ones, but my favorite is the kid we nicknamed Santa, because he and his girlfriend tried to hide up the chimney.” She rubbed her hands together. “Tell me everything.” Chapter Four . . . . . . . When the waitress brought the check to the table, Nik handed the waitress her credit card. “This one is on me. I’m still mad at you for paying for our drinks from Saturday. I owed you.” He pursed his mouth and considered. “Okay, fine, but you get all of the leftovers. Deal?” He said that like it was a punishment. Which, considering how spicy some of their leftovers were . . . he might be correct about that. “Deal. I can have them for lunch tomorrow, in between all of the cupcakes.” As they walked to her car, he elbowed her. “Yes?” she said, in answer to his look. “I know you’re pretty nervous about all of the Fisher stuff. Do you want me to follow you home just to make sure everything is okay? I mean, I’m sure everything is fine, I just thought I’d—” “Yeah,” she said. “That would be great.” Why had she agreed to this so quickly, she wondered on the short drive to her house. She usually hated it when men got all protective about her safety, like she was some delicate flower who didn’t know how to protect herself. But that hadn’t been what Carlos had done, and she’d appreciated it. After her panic from this afternoon, it would be nice to have backup for those thirty seconds it took for her to walk through her apartment. Plus, not to be shallow, but the way Carlos’s T-shirt clung to his biceps . . . she was pretty sure Carlos could take Fisher down easily. But wait a second. Was she really going to get some dude she hardly knew to do a walk-through of her apartment just because she got a few nasty text messages? That was ridiculous. She was a grown woman; she’d lived on her own for years; she could take care of herself. She should text him right now and tell him that she was fine and didn’t need his help. Yeah, she’d do that. She reached in her pocket for her phone. When she got home, she’d text her girlfriends and tell them how stupid she’d almost been. Well, she’d text her girlfriends if she was still around to text them. She could hear Courtney’s voice in her head. What do you have to lose here? Are you really worried about looking silly in front of a man you barely know? Who cares? She cared, damn it. But her friends would kill her if she sent Carlos away and anything happened to her. Okay, fine. She put her phone back in her pocket. She parked in the lot behind her apartment building and met Carlos on the front steps. “Thanks for coming inside with me. I feel like an idiot,” she said as she unlocked the door. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’m a pretty impressive dude; people feel like idiots around me all the time. I’m used to it.” Despite her rising anxiety, she laughed as they walked up the stairs to her second-floor apartment. “Did he have a key?” Carlos asked in a low voice. Nik sighed and stopped on the stairs. “I never gave him one, but I left my keys around all the time, and it’s easy to get keys copied. And there was one time when I forgot my keys at his house for a whole weekend and had to get my set of extra keys back from Dana. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but . . . I’m paranoid now, I guess.” Carlos put his hand on her shoulder, and she relaxed against it. “Are you ready to go inside? Or do you need a minute?” She pulled away from him. She never should have done this, but she had no choice now. “No, no, I’m fine. Let’s go in.” He took the key out of her hand and unlocked the door. She could have done that herself, but okay. He pushed it open slowly. Why had she turned off all of the lights before she left her house? Energy-saving nonsense. Now she felt like one of those women in horror movies. One of the ones who got killed in the first fifteen minutes. Wait, no. Those women never had the sense to get someone else to come with them when they had a bad feeling. Carlos pushed the door wide open and stepped through it in front of her. “If the demon gets me, tell my mother I loved her.” Apparently they watched the same kind of movies. She followed close at his heels as he walked into the living room and flicked on the lights. Everything looked the same as when she’d left it two hours before: her laptop on the desk against her big bay window, her remote on the floor by her coffee table, her T-shirt and—oops—bra on the top of the couch where she’d thrown them off after getting Carlos’s text. She saw a smile around his eyes when he turned in that direction, but he didn’t let it reach his mouth. “Is there anywhere to hide in this room?” he asked her under his breath. She shook her head. She started to walk down the hallway that led to her bedroom, but he put his hand on her shoulder to stop her. “Let me go first.” He didn’t wait for an answer. She stared daggers into his back as she followed him down the hallway. Just because she’d accepted his offer to make sure Fisher wasn’t around didn’t mean she was okay with him ordering her around in her own apartment. This had been a terrible idea. When she walked into her bedroom, he’d already flung open the closet doors and was running his hands through the crowded coat side of her closet. He turned around well after she was satisfied that there was no one hiding among them. “Are all of these coats . . . yours?” he asked her. “You do realize you live in Los Angeles, right?” “Shut up. It gets cold here sometimes. And I go to New York at least once or twice a year.” He shook his head, with a smile in his eyes. “Mmm, yeah, that totally means you need twenty coats, absolutely.” She tried not to grin back at him and failed. He stepped around to the far side of her bed, then went into the hallway and threw open the hall closet. She supposed that Fisher could have hidden in there, if he’d been hiding his contortionist talents from her. He glanced at the shelves full of extra bedding, towels, and boxes of sparkling water, and closed the door without a word. He stepped into the bathroom, and she heard the shower curtain swish across the rod. “All clear in the bathroom, too. Anywhere else?” She walked down the hall to the kitchen, simultaneously so relieved she was ready to collapse and feeling so stupid she wanted to hide among all the coats in her closet. “I mean, I suppose if someone was really trying, they could hide in the refrigerator, or under the couch, but I somehow doubt that. I think we’re all clear.” She opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of wine. “I’m sorry for dragging you along on this wild goose chase. I don’t know what got into me. Wine?” She glanced over at him, standing in her living room, and saw him peer under the couch. She smiled and poured two glasses. “Here.” She handed him a glass and sat down on the couch. “Thank you. I’m not usually . . .” She shook her head. “Anyway, thank you. I hope you’re not too much of a man’s man to drink rosé.” He sat down next to her and picked up the wineglass. “No such thing.” He took a sip of the wine and glanced over at her. “You should get your locks changed.” Okay, that was enough telling her what to do. “I know I should get my locks changed; I’m not an idiot,” she said. He put his glass down. “Hey, I’m sorry. Of course you aren’t. I didn’t mean to suggest that.” He looked at her, then looked away. “I’m used to taking care of all of the women in my family, so I have the tendency to go overboard sometimes. I didn’t mean to tell you what to do.” She picked up his wineglass and handed it to him. “It’s okay, really. I didn’t mean to snap at you.” She closed her eyes. “I don’t usually give in to fits of paranoia like this, and I hate it. Sorry for taking it out on you.” He smiled at her and patted her thigh. She hated herself for wanting his hand to linger there a lot longer than it did. “You have nothing to be ashamed of. Every woman needs a big strong man to come and protect her; that’s not your fault. It’s just because you’re naturally weak and helpless, just by virtue of, you know, being a woman and all. You needed a man like me to do the hard work of looking under your bed. I understand that you aren’t capable of stuff like that.” She smacked his arm. “You asshole.” She was laughing so hard she had to put her wineglass down. “You had me going for at least five or six seconds there! You were so close to me throwing this wine in your face and literally kicking you out of my apartment.” * * * • • • Carlos laughed and relaxed against the couch cushions. He’d been a little worried that she’d get furious at him for that, but he also thought it might break some of the tension. One of the things that he already liked so much about Nik was how independent she was; he should have known that telling her what to do would piss her off. Angela had gotten mad at him just a few weeks ago for taking her car in to get serviced; she’d said she was fully capable of doing it for herself. He’d told her it wasn’t that he didn’t think she was capable of it, it’s just that he’d felt like it was his job to do it. That hadn’t made her less mad. She waved at his wineglass. “Drink, drink, I promise I won’t knock the glass all over you.” He took another sip. He usually made fun of Angela for drinking rosé. She could definitely never find out that he drank it with Nik and liked it. “But really, don’t feel bad,” he said. “It’s totally normal to freak out about stuff like this. And my stint in the ER during my residency really opened my eyes to how often this stuff happens to women. I mean, fine, he wasn’t here and you felt silly that you had me come up, no big deal. But too many women ignore those feelings or don’t want to feel silly, and I’ve seen some of the aftermaths. Feeling silly is definitely better.” She took another sip of her wine and leaned back. When she’d sat down on the couch, she’d sat down right in the middle, so he’d had no choice but to sit right next to her. They were so close they were almost touching. “I almost called you on the way here and told you I didn’t need you, but I knew my friends would have yelled at me and told me not to be a fool.” She paused. “I think I’ve given other people similar advice, now that I think about it. It’s always easier to give people advice than it is to take it yourself.” Should he put his arm around her? He really wanted to, but she’d just had a dramatic breakup a few days ago, and she might smack him and order him out of her house. But she was curled up on the couch next to him like that, all cozy with her wine; this seemed like a prime situation for making a move, right? “Speaking of giving advice,” she said, “you said that you spend a lot of time giving advice to teenagers, and I’m totally curious about your job. What does it mean, to be the assistant director of a teen clinic?” Okay, it seemed like she just wanted to talk, as they sat here shoulder to shoulder in the dim lighting on her couch while holding glasses of wine. Great. “Excellent question, and one that I’m still kind of figuring out the answer to. I’ve only been doing it for about six months, but I love it so far. Basically, all of the health care of the kids that the medical center serves—who are in the twelve to nineteen age group—is routed through our clinic. The goal is to recognize that teens are in a special place, both mentally and physically, and to serve their needs as best as we can.” “I wish my doctor’s office had had a teen clinic when I was a kid,” she said. “I always remember feeling so grumpy about still going to a pediatrician when I was a teenager, surrounded by babies and toddlers.” She took another sip of wine and picked a piece of lint off of his shoulder. He felt lulled by her touch, the warm night air, by her presence. And also probably the wine. She stood up to get the bottle of wine from the fridge and brought it back over to the couch. “You said you’d only been there for six months—where were you before that?” She tipped the wine bottle toward his glass and raised her eyebrows at him. He nodded. Was she trying to get him to linger? Had the whole “I’m afraid of my ex” thing just been bullshit to get him to come up to her apartment? Would he care if that was the case? He grinned to himself. Would he care if a hot girl made up a story about being scared of her ex-boyfriend to get him up to her apartment? Hell no, he would not care. “I was at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital on the Westside. I liked working there a lot, but this job is different from what I’d been doing there, and it’s a lot of fun. Plus, it was great to come back to the Eastside and be closer to my family.” But wait. He didn’t know this girl that well, but from his few interactions with her, she seemed pretty forthright and honest, almost to a fault. He didn’t really think she’d make up a story if she wanted him in her apartment. She would just ask him if he wanted to come upstairs. Plus, if someone was pretending to be scared, they would have acted much more scared than she did when they walked in. She hadn’t been clingy or crying or any of that stuff. She’d just looked tense and angry. And she even hadn’t hinted for him to come over; he’d been the one to offer. “I spend so much time with L.A. people who are from somewhere else; it’s always fun to meet a real local,” she said. “Do you have a big family?” He rested his hand on the couch, right by, but not on, her knee. “Yes and no—it’s a big extended family, but Angie’s my only sibling. But we grew up right around the corner from my mom’s sister, Tia Eva, and her daughter, my cousin Jessica, who is basically like a sister to me. She’s the one I told you about at the bar who I got the ‘Is that you?’ idea from.” He smiled. “That’s another reason why this was a good time to move back to the Eastside; Jessie’s pregnant now with her first kid, and my whole family is over the moon.” She tucked her hair behind her ears and looked up at him. He liked the way she concentrated on him when he was talking, like she was really listening to what he had to say. He also liked the way the neckline of her shirt kept dipping lower and lower. He had to force himself to not let his eyes linger for too long on her cleavage. “Are you over the moon about the baby, too?” Her shirt dipped off one shoulder. He really wanted to reach over and push it off all the way. It took him a minute to remember what she’d asked him. Right, right, Jessie’s baby. “Oh yeah, definitely. You’d think that after being a pediatrician for years now I’d think babies are a dime a dozen, but I can’t wait until Jessie has hers. Not that I’m ready in the least to have one of my own, but that’s what’s going to make Jessie’s so fun. Being an uncle is going to be great. All of the fun and none of the responsibility.” He laughed. “Plus, this way, my mom will get off my ass about giving her grandbabies because she’ll have Jessie’s baby to hang out with.” She looked at him sideways. “Or, she’ll be on your ass even more because she’ll be so excited about the one baby that she’ll want more.” He held his finger up to her lips. “Shhhhh, don’t say that. She knows it’s going to be a long time before that happens. I have too many other people to take care of right now. I’m just glad that I’m back on the Eastside. I can be closer when the baby is born, as well as for things like killing spiders—real and imaginary—late at night for Angela.” She took the last sip of her wine and smiled at him. “She’s lucky she has you. I was lucky that I had you around tonight, too.” She sat up straight and put her feet on the floor. “Do you have to be at work super early in the morning? It’s getting late.” That sure sounded like his cue to go. Damn it. He looked at his watch and barely noticed what it said. “It’s getting pretty close to my bedtime.” He put his hand on her arm. “Are you going to be okay tonight?” Her eyes shot to the door, but she nodded anyway. “Of course. I’ll be fine, don’t worry about me.” He’d been on the point of standing up. Instead, he settled back down on the couch. “Well, when you say it like that, I’m worried about you. Do you want me to . . .” He was going to say, “Do you want me to stay?” but that sounded like he was inviting himself into her bed. And while he’d love to get an invitation there, he didn’t want to look like even more of an asshole than he already had tonight. “Do you want me to stay until one of your friends can get here?” “I feel ridiculous even thinking about doing that, but . . . maybe. Courtney has to be up at the crack of dawn, so I don’t want to call her. I can call Dana, though. I don’t think she’s filming tomorrow. Oh God, that reminds me! Instagram!” She pulled her phone out of her pocket. He had no idea what the hell that meant in this context. “Instagram?” he asked. “Fisher Instagrams his whole life, for ‘branding’ and his fans or whatever. If he’s updated in the last few hours or so, at least I’ll know what he’s up to.” She typed something into the search bar on her phone while she talked. “I blocked him on everything, so he can’t contact me, but if I’m logged out, I can still see . . . oh my God, Carlos. Look at this! He’s in Vegas!” She turned her phone around so he could see the video of Fisher dancing terribly at some club. He let out a shout of laughter. “Wow.” He scooted closer to her so they could both watch. My God, she smelled good. He wanted to stay this close to her on the couch for a long time. “Is this guy for real? Play it again.” She played his video four or five more times, and they laughed harder every time. “This is almost as good as the middle-finger ring picture,” she said, still laughing. He raised his eyebrows at her. “What middle-finger ring picture?” “Oh my God. I’m so sorry. I didn’t show you. You and Angela left before we looked at his texts. Look at this picture he sent me.” She scrolled through her phone and pulled up a photo of a blurry middle finger with a blue engagement ring on it. He recoiled. “Oh my God. He seriously texted you this?” As she’d scrolled to the photo, he’d seen flashes of a few of the texts Fisher had sent her after the proposal. That fucking bastard. “I know. I know.” She was still looking at the photo, and not at him. “You don’t have to say anything. I have terrible judgment in men; we all know that now, but this is really incredible, right?” He stood up. He was glad for her that Fisher was out of town, but now he had no more excuses to stay here. “It’s so incredible that I need to go home now to process that. And also because I have to be up, awake, and ready for patients at eight thirty a.m. tomorrow.” She walked him to the door. “Sorry for keeping you up, and thanks again.” She reached out to hug him, and he pulled her in tight. Her body nestled up against his felt so good. He wanted to hold on for much longer and forced himself to let go. “Glad I could be here. Good night. And if you want to stack a chair behind that door after I leave, feel free. No one will know about it but you.” She laughed and reached up to kiss him on the cheek. “I just might do that, thanks.” Chapter Five . . . . . . . Nik shut the door behind Carlos and closed her eyes. Maybe, she thought, if she stood there for a few minutes with her forehead against this door, it would magically take away the far too many feelings going through her head right now. She gave it about two minutes, but it didn’t work. So she flopped back down on the couch and pulled the blanket over her face. Why hadn’t he offered to stay with her that night, Fisher or no Fisher? She would have said “No, you’re too busy, I don’t want to inconvenience you more than I have,” and he would have offered again, and she would have said, “Are you sure?” and he would have said, “Of course,” and she would have said, “You really don’t have to, but . . .” and he would have said, “I want to!” and then she would have tackled him on the couch. That would have been a much better ending to tonight than her being on her couch alone feeling like an idiot. Worse, he hadn’t even tried to kiss her! She’d given him every damn opportunity—she had practically shoved her boobs in his face—and he’d been all smiling and talking about his cousin and his patients and blah blah blah. Sure, she’d asked him about those things and hadn’t asked him, “Do you like my boobs in this shirt, Carlos? I grew them just for you,” but he should have gotten that that was what she’d meant. Ugh, and she hadn’t even invited him upstairs on some sort of “come look at my etchings” pretext. She’d wanted him for—gag—protection. When she’d unlocked her front door, she’d been so grateful that he was there. She’d felt actually comforted by his presence. Even when he’d ordered her around in a way that she would normally hate, she’d still been so relieved that he was there. How humiliating. She, Nikole Paterson, who prided herself on being self-sufficient and self-reliant and an Independent Woman, et cetera, et cetera, had caved under the slightest amount of pressure and called on a man to come save her. And she’d almost thrown herself at him in the process. Okay, this was getting way out of hand. Sure, her fingers were dying to run themselves through his thick dark hair, and her hand had lingered a little too long on his bicep tonight, and every time he curved those inviting lips of his into a smile, she wanted to pull him closer. But a rebound with Carlos was a terrible idea, remember? She neither wanted, nor needed, a rebound with anyone! That was why she’d hinted it was time for Carlos to go home. Men were trouble. She’d learned that over and over again. Plus, Carlos was a doctor, and she was done with doctors. They thought they were better than everyone else. She’d never forget that time when her digital recorder had failed unbeknownst to her during an important interview and she’d burst into angry tears about it to Justin. He’d said, “Come on, Nikole. It’s just an interview with an actor; it’s no big deal. Unlike in my job, no one’s going to die because of a little mistake.” She was still mad she’d stayed with him for another year after that. She shouldn’t have let Carlos come over in the first place. Even though he’d seemed nice and, yes, she had wished in a weak moment that he’d ended up in her bed, he still clearly thought that she was a helpless woman who needed him to protect her. He’d joked about that, but was it really a joke? Letting men see your vulnerabilities was always a mistake. There must be better avenues out there to protect herself against creepy ex-boyfriends than calling for the nearest man to protect her. * * * • • • “A self-defense class?” Dana asked. “You want us to go to a self-defense class together?” The three of them were all out at the bar two days later, partly because she hadn’t left her apartment since Monday night, partly so she could share her great idea with them. “It’s a good idea!” Nik said. “They’re supposed to be very empowering.” Courtney and Dana both stared at her like she had sprouted a second head. “‘Empowering?’ Since when do you use words like ‘empowering’?” Courtney asked. She had a point. “Sorry, I’ve been looking at too many self-defense class websites. But doesn’t it sound fun to go punch some stuff? It’ll be a great workout.” Now Dana looked interested. The poor thing had to constantly exercise. She’d gotten a best friend role in a sitcom the year before, which meant she could never get above a size two, and even that was pushing it. “That does sound fun, but is this one of those classes where everyone is supposed to share some trauma or something and then you punch it to, like, conquer your fear or whatever?” she asked. “There are a bunch of different kinds,” Nik said. “They teach you how to defend yourself, and—” “Yes, I got that; it’s right there in the name,” Dana said. “Shut up, you know what I mean. It’ll help us be more confident walking down the street at night or dealing with creepy guys.” “I drive everywhere, and I’ve been dealing with creepy guys for over twenty years. What else you got?” Dana drained her drink. “Hmm, will it also help some of us deal with ex-boyfriends who send vaguely threatening messages?” Courtney asked. She’d sort of hoped that they wouldn’t connect the dots about why she was interested in the class. It was a ridiculous hope, though. Unfortunately, she had intelligent friends. “You didn’t tell me that.” Dana sat up straight. “What the hell did he say to you?” She pulled out her phone. “I’m texting my roller