His name was chuck, with a “CK.” I had to click my tongue against the back of my teeth to really get the sound right. He’d showed me about ten times over the course of our less than mediocre first date, but I’d yet to get it right. My tongue didn’t pop against the back of my tongue properly and it felt like I was making an ass of myself each and every time. The sound came out in a half slur, half snap, and now I’d reduced myself to just not calling him by name.
A foolproof strategy really.
Chuck wasn’t at all my type. I wasn’t quite sure he was anyone’s type.
He wasn’t tall, dark, or handsome, and he wasn’t blond and buff either. He didn’t have the broad shoulders I’d usually swoon over or the athletic body type that sometimes got my motor running, like a hockey player.
Drool. Hockey players.
But that fantasy wasn’t anything like the man sitting across from me. I supposed I wasn’t his idea of a perfect woman, either. I was on the shorter side. And I was definitely a little fuller in person than my online-dating profile suggested.
And by a little fuller, I meant a good thirty or forty pounds. I knew I had to change the picture. My sister Hannah had been insisting over and over that I wouldn’t have any less interest by showing my real self online. In fact, she’d tell me in her feminine sing-song voice, you’ll attract the right men who want you just as you are, and you won’t have to waste time on bozos with shallow intentions.
But that was all easier said than done.
Take Chuck for example. The photo I’d seen of him prior to meeting him at the restaurant for our blind date had let on that he might be a little firmer and more handsome than he actually was. Perhaps that was because he hadn’t been able to talk from said photo.
But in person?
Off-putting, I thought as I took a big sip of chilled white wine. Very off-putting.
Chuck was like a guy from a home improvement show. Problem was, he wasn’t the handyman. He was the project.
Somewhere in the middle of our fancy dinner and strained conversation, I’d come to the conclusion that my sister hated me, though she claimed to be my very closest friend. The bitch hates me, and I’m going to get her back good for this date.
I could see her now, sitting in her living room, eating Ben and Jerry’s, and laughing her ass off as she pictured me right where I was on this Godforsaken date. She had a friend? Chuck was a friend of hers? From where? The bottom of the barrel no other women were looking in?
“And then I told this old boy that…” Chuck had been going on about some story he thought I absolutely needed to hear again while I cursed my sister. He’d already run through so much date material I could hardly keep up.
So I’d stopped trying.
Besides, who called another grown man “old boy?” I smiled politely across the table from him and began to mentally work through my options to get the hell out of Dodge. I could feign an impromptu illness, press the side of my hand to my forehead and lean back in my chair like I was going to faint, and finish the event with a breathless feminine sigh before telling him I was feeling ill and needed to go home to lie down and rest.
Classy but too much effort. And there was always that risk that he’d be one of those guys who wanted to be my superhero and whisk me out of the restaurant in his arms.
Ick. No thank you.
I could knock the candle over between us and set the restaurant on fire.
I could start choking and hold my breath until the ambulance got there.
Yes, I thought as relief washed over me. There it was. My escape. My exit strategy. My forever knight in shining armor.
I could text Jackson to save me again. He would give me shit for months to come, but that was what best friends were for. They were there to pull you out of the deep when you were drowning in your own self-pity. He’d done it a million times. Tonight would be no different.
“Could you excuse me for just a minute?” I took my white napkin off my lap and set it on the edge of the table beside my wine glass.
Chuck looked up at me, blinking as if startled that I had actually spoken. I supposed that was what I got for sitting there indulging him in his boring stories for the last twenty-five minutes without saying a single word.
“I just need to run to the little girl’s room.” I left my chair, grabbed my purse from where it hung over the back of the seat, and gave him a sweet smile as I passed him to make for the washrooms at the back of the restaurant, nestled down a dimly lit moody hallway to the right of the kitchens.
Little girl’s room? I didn’t, did I?
Shit. I did.
Chuck swallowed past his mouthful of steak. “Oh yeah. Of course. You know where it is?”
Even if I didn’t, I’d be just fine on my own, Romeo. Thanks. It’s finding a washroom, not the Fountain of Youth.
I escaped to the washroom and locked myself in a stall. I could almost visualize how good it was going to feel to wrestle my big sister to the ground and put my armpit in her face. She knew what she was doing. Butthole.
I chuckled to myself at the thought and fished my phone out of my disaster of a purse. Lip gloss and two tampons spilled out onto the floor. I dialed Jackson and pinched my phone between my shoulder and my cheek as I leaned forward to pick up my items.
“Hailey?” Jackson’s voice was like the symphony of a sweet harp and it was playing one song: I’ll save you.
“I need you.”
“Most women do, Boo. But tonight’s not good. I got a hot little number in a red bikini getting in the hot tub and—”
“Hey, I’m fucking serious right now,” I barked into the phone.
“Whoa. All right. What’s up? You in trouble?”
“Yes. Text me in fifteen minutes and then show up at De Lucas in downtown. Got it?”
“Hailey, seriously right now? This chick is hot as fuck.”
“Now. Call her tomorrow or leave her there to soak. Maybe it’ll help loosen up the plastic.” I stood up and flushed the toilet.
Jackson sighed. “I’ll have you know this one is au natural, baby. And you’re calling from the shitter. Naturally.”
“Fifteen minutes, Jackson, or our friendship is officially over.” I brushed my hair down and walked out of the stall.
“All right. I’ll be there. You’re making this up to me.”
“If you get here before I put myself out of my own misery by stabbing my own eyes out with my fork, sure, I’ll make it up to you.” I hung up and tucked my phone in my purse. I’d done the same thing for him at least a million times, and I’d do it a million more. I’d played his sister, his nanny, his wife, his boss, and his mother one time over our long sordid relationship. If anyone owed anyone, Jackson owed me.
And I was calling in the favor without shame. It all came out even in the wash anyway. For the most part.
I washed my hands and stared at my reflection in the water-stained mirror above the sink. I fixed my lipstick and tried to buy as much time as possible before I had to go back out there and endure the company of Mr. Chuck with a “CK.”
“More like Chuck with a ‘D’ for disappointment.”
I rubbed my newly glossed lips together, spritzed a little bit of citrus-scented essential oils onto my chest and wrists, and took a deep breath. I could get through this. I’d survived first dates with worse men than Chuck and come out the other side to tell the tale—or punish the responsible party for sending me off with such a dive of a man.
Tonight would be no different. When I got home, Hannah would pay for what she did to me.
Using that thought as the dose of optimism I needed to survive the next fifteen minutes, I left the bathroom. The heels of my ankle boots clicked on the black tile floors as I made my way back to our table. I dropped into my chair and hooked my purse over the back again.
Chuck was on his phone.
He didn’t look up at me, so I decided to make the most of it and drink the remaining wine in my glass in six steady gulps. I set it down, dabbed at my lips with the tips of my fingers, slumped back in my chair, and rested my hands in my lap.
How long would it take before he paid me any attention?
I waited two minutes before clearing my throat.
Chuck looked up, once again startled that I had made a lick of sound. “Oh. You’re back. Excellent. Where were we?”
I wasn’t inclined to remind him that he’d been telling me a story about his extremely politically incorrect uncle and what had happened during last Christmas’s family dinner. I let him stew in it, trying to recall our discussion.
He launched right back into his story when he remembered.
I sighed and didn’t hide it. My complete lack of interest went right over his head. Either that or he really didn’t care that I was having a miserable time. Men like him infuriated me. There was nothing worse than an egotistical average male who thought women hung on every word that came from his mouth, not because it was interesting but because it was coming from him.
“I’m sorry, Chuck,” I said, not bothering to accentuate the “CK” and daring him with my eyes to correct me again. He didn’t. “But I actually got an important call when I was in the ladies room and I’m going to have to leave.”
An hour ago would have been preferable. “Yes.”
Chuck rolled his eyes. “Of course. All you women are the same. What, you couldn’t even be bothered to whip up a good excuse for me?”
“To spare your mammoth-sized ego?”
Chuck looked like I’d just slapped him.
Usually, I would leave a date like this without saying a word. I’d let him think I’d been called by my sister or I needed to go into the office or something—anything—but Chuck didn’t deserve a gentle letdown and the justice-seeking side of me wanted to let him know just how much of my time he’d wasted.
“Listen,” I said. “I don’t know if anyone has ever bothered to explain date etiquette to you, but if this is how you continue to interact with women, you’re going to strike out nine times out of ten.”
“Where do you get off—”
I stood up. I wasn’t going to sit around with this loser for another minute. “You spent the entire night talking about yourself. You haven’t asked me a single question.”
“That’s not true.”
“Fine. Tell me something you learned about me tonight then.”
Chuck sat there like a fish out of water, his stupid mouth opening and closing as his stupider brain tried to think of a good answer. He came up empty.
I smiled. “See? Exactly. Good luck, Chuck. I’m out.”
I turned on my heel and marched out. My confidence was at an all-time high and I had a bit of sway in my hips that hadn’t been there earlier in the night when I’d first arrived. I stepped out onto the sidewalk outside the restaurant and drew in a deep breath of the cool mid-March Nashville air.
People brushed past me to get into the restaurant so I stepped aside and pulled the elastic off my wrist before raking my fingers through my hair and pulling my tumbling curls—which had taken a great deal of time for me to do for this stupid date—into a high pony tail. Seconds later, a car engine rumbled and I moved to the curb and peered down the street.
A pair of bright headlights bobbed up the road as Jackson’s metallic black Mercedes SLR roared down the street toward me. Heads turned. Men leaned toward the road and their wives pulled them by their elbows toward the restaurant, no doubt wanting to save themselves the bore of standing around while their men admired the sleek lines of Jackson’s luxury sports car.
He pulled up to the curb and came to an abrupt stop. The passenger window rolled down and Jackson leaned across the seat to peer up at me. “Get in, sweet legs.”
I wished I hadn’t worn such a tight little black dress. Leave it to Jackson to make a comment.
All eyes were on me as I swung down into the low seat of the car. Jackson revved the engine and put on a show for all the pining men lining the sidewalk while I put my seatbelt on. Then he checked his mirrors, slammed into first gear, and tore off down the street, leaving his admirers in his dust.
“Was one of those clowns this date of yours?” Jackson asked.
“Nope. Your antics were wasted on regular Joe Blows.”
Jackson flashed me his most devilish smile. “You like my antics. Otherwise, you’d have called someone else.”
He wasn’t wrong. Instead of debating him, I reached out and turned up the volume dial. His laughter was drowned out by the roar of music in my ears and I left the window down so the wind could tug at my pony tail and blow off any lingering cooties from Chuck.