Authors: Caitie Quinn
Connor was right on time. I'll admit it was a bit of a shock. I figured him for the wander-in-whenever-he-remembered-to-show-up type of guy. The way he’d held us both up for the meeting the first day didn’t scream
I value punctuality.
And may the universe help us all if a model crossed his path.
Luckily, I’d made sure to be on time for this. Or Kasey who was obsessed with timeliness came over to help me get ready and made sure I was on time for this.
I grabbed my wrap and headed toward the door before the buzzer finished echoing against the walls. At the top of the stairs, I ran head-on into a solid chest. Patting my nose to make sure it wasn't broken, I glanced up.
"You're ready?" He gave me one of his probably-patented once overs.
"You said seven."
We stood there, facing off eye-to-eye, with him on a lower step, because we were both punctual. For once.
"Right. I know. But I've never met a woman who was actually on time." He gave me a look that said, and that includes you.
I smiled, trying to portray that my occasional tardiness was part of my charm.
I considered the women he dated. It probably took a good forty minutes for them to put on make-up. Then, with the hair and the clothes and the whole have-to-be-perfect thing, no wonder he was always waiting.
"Well, I don't have as much maintenance to do as the girls you date."
His eyebrow went up and I realized that didn't come out the way I meant it.
"I mean, I don't do as much to myself to go out...you know. I guess my self-standards are lower. I mean, with the makeup and everything. I’m just…yeah.” And thank goodness for that. After my makeover, I definitely did not envy those of our gender who had to look perfect constantly for because of a job.
He was chuckling now. A deep laugh under his breath, and I couldn't figure out which part he was laughing at, the low-maintenance part or the stumbling-around-for-words part.
"No worries. I know what you mean. I guess I'm just used to sitting on uncomfortable, feminine furniture, sipping a Whiskey Neat for half-a-hour before each date.” He shrugged. “My own personal date ritual."
Oh, geez. Whiskey Neat was Scotch, right? I didn't even own any whiskey. Or Scotch. I was already a fake girlfriend failure.
"Don't worry.” He must have seen the panic. “I can order a drink at the restaurant if I want one. I guess I was just looking forward to having a comfortable chair to sit in for once."
Connor rolled his shoulder and I noticed the strap of a bag over it. Please, please don't let him be one of those guys who carried a weird
thing. Or who wore indoor scarves. Or got manicures.
Connor didn’t seem like a girly-guy, but he was edging toward high maintenance if any of those things were true.
I scanned him for a scarf or overly fashionable socks before asking, "What's that?"
"I brought some things over. I was talking to my brother Gavin and he pointed out that if we'd been dating seriously for a few weeks, I'd have some stuff at your house. And they'd catch us sneaking out to breakfast some morning wearing something different than the night before."
Stuff? And he was going to put it in my place and leave it there?
This was way more involved than I'd anticipated.
Also, the idea that people would be aware enough of us that they’d know he was wearing different clothes—Well, that was a level of celebrity tracking I hoped my visit to would be brief.
"So...I was thinking we could leave the bag here instead of taking it to dinner?"
"Yeah. Yes. Of course." I turned and force-marched myself back to the door, sliding the key home and ignoring the man behind me until I couldn't. "You're not really going to stay here are you?"
He set the bag down on the couch and glanced around. Taking in my tiny furniture and my small,
space with the non-guy-sized television.
"Of course I am.”
I didn't really see how there was an of course involved in this.
"But that means sleeping here."
Connor stepped over my miniature coffee table and came to hover over me. His gaze slid over my face before coming back to my eyes. He winked, giving me that trademark smile I’d seen on every website hit I’d pulled up last night. "There's not a lot of sleeping involved when I stay over my girlfriend’s house."
I could feel the heat rushing up my neck—part embarrassment, part annoyed.
"Oh. I'm so glad to hear that." I forced a grin as he started in surprise. "Because I can't guarantee the couch is very comfortable."
sleeping on the couch."
"Then it's the floor, because you're not sleeping with me." I crossed my arms, so flustered I feared my hands were shaking. "I don't know you. I'm not dating you. If you're sleeping in this apartment, it's on the couch. Or the floor. Although, as you've pointed out, the leather chair is really comfortable."
"Hailey, we're both adults.” He turned on the charm for this attempt. “There's no reason we can't share a bed."
"I understand you don't know me. So, I'll say this once. I'm not a prude, but my values around sex and relationships obviously aren't as lax as yours. I don't go sharing my bed—for sex or sleep—with random guys I'm trapped in fake relationships with. If you stay, you know your options."
I pushed past him before he could respond. This wasn't an argument. An argument meant he might have a chance of persuading me. This was a non-negotiable and he better get that quickly if this whole thing was going to work.
I threw the door open, annoyed with myself when it banged into the wall behind it.
"So, we can go to dinner and you can decide if you want to stay here—on the couch—later. Or we can call it off. If you forfeit, you make it very clear to Dex that it’s on you. I have a proposal going out the door in a few weeks and I don't need their little agent mafia bad-mouthing Catherine when I need every negotiating super power working in my favor."
"Forfeit?" His voice had dropped to a new low and I realized my mistake immediately. "Sweetheart, I don't lose. And I certainly don't
. But get one thing straight. I also don't sleep on couches."
"Then I guess you'll be going home tonight."
I stepped into the hall, forcing his hand.
"Fine.” He pulled the door shut behind us. “Let's go to dinner."
Worst. Start. To a date. Ever.
I tromped down the stairs, annoyed at Connor. Annoyed to be breaking in more new shoes. Annoyed I could have stayed in and gotten pages written and maybe watched an old episode of Buffy.
When I reached for the front door, a dark sleeve shot past me, pulled it open, and held it as I attempted to sail through as graceful as a swan. I’m sure I looked more like a waddling penguin. But, hey. At least my hair looked good.
On the sidewalk, Connor stepped forward to flag down a cab.
"Where are we going?"
"Il Giardino." He named a restaurant fairly nearby that was busy enough we'd blend in without the paparazzi of his typical set, but we'd definitely be spotted out together.
"That's only four blocks from here."
Connor nodded, obviously not seeing my point.
"Why don't we just walk?" Did the man not realize how much cabs were?
"You want to walk?" The way he asked it had me wondering why it was such a confusing idea.
"Sure. Why not?"
"Aren't you afraid you'll get..." He waved a hand in my general direction. "Mussed? I mean, don't you want the moment where you get out of the cab and everyone glances?"
"Not really.” And, did people really do that? Make cab entrances? That sounded stressful. “One more reason to just walk."
He kept looking at me and I had no idea if I was supposed to add something to this.
"You really don't care, do you?"
"Should I?" Honestly, this was getting way too confusing between the bag and the whiskey and the cabs. I was going to have to make myself pre-date flashcards at this rate.
"I don't know." He looked like he really didn't. Like he was thinking it through and trying to come to some conclusion.
"Do you?" I asked, trying to figure out if I’d messed up again.
"I don't think so." He shook his head, a surprised look raising his eyebrows. "No. Nope, I don't care. Let's walk."
We headed east. The only sound between us the clicking of our shoes. I was focused on not falling or getting the pointy heels stuck in a crack or grate when a heavy arm fell across my shoulder.
"What are you doing?" I tried to step away, but his hand tightened where it cupped my shoulder.
"There's no way I'd walk down the street without having an arm around my girlfriend. If we're not making an entrance showing up in a cab, then we'll have to look the part this way."
He was right.
It kind of grated.
So far, he’d been right fairly often and I was beginning to realize I’d underestimated him. Which could be a problem if I was going to make sure I stayed safely away from any dating danger zones.
We walked on, both pretending this wasn’t the least bit awkward. Okay, I was pretending I didn't feel awkward. Who knows what Connor was thinking? We were a block from the restaurant when he glanced at his watch.
"We're really early for our reservation."
I don't think I'd ever gone out with a guy who bothered to make reservations. Or maybe Connor didn't. Someone who made as much money as he did must have lackeys. The whole thing was suspicious. He probably made reservations and then tipped off the papers himself. I'd heard about the Hollywood wars over actresses doing that to get coverage. Like those just-coming-out-of-the-gym photos where the person looks really surprised to be caught. Not to mention, completely not sweaty.
happens in the real world.
"Why did you make a reservation?" I tried to keep the suspicion out of my voice, but when he shot me an odd look I guessed I'd failed.
"So we wouldn't have to wait. Also, I have a few favorite restaurants where I've gotten to know the owners. Not letting them know I'd be there was just rude if there's a chance we might have an
." The tone of his voice was not all warm and fuzzy on that last word. "I waited till the last minute though so we could stay low key. I was afraid Dex had called the papers." He steered me across the street at the crosswalk. "He seems to know where I am no matter what. I've tried texting, calling, having my brother call. It's like Dex has LoJack on my phone. Would you believe I actually left it at home for a few days to test the theory?"
No. I wouldn't have, but after seeing Dex in action maybe I should rethink that.
"So, you think he calls the papers on you?” I asked. “You think that's how you have so much coverage?"
He shook his head, not even bothering to look down at me.
"Sweetheart, I was born for this coverage. I have it because I'm the best at what I do, I make a lot of money, I’ll help get the Nighthawks to the pennant, and I date some of the most beautiful women in the world. If I wasn't me, I'd probably be buying those dumb rags just to check me out too."
As statements went, that one was an excellent reality check. His social karma moves would only get him so far.
Connor pulled the front door open and allowed me to pass by him into the restaurant. One thing was for sure. He had excellent manners…when he didn’t have horrible ones.
Dex had probably sent him to some etiquette school to get him house broken.
"Mr. Ryan!" The girl behind the hostess stand sounded as if she'd just run the four blocks from my house. "We weren't expecting you for half-an-hour."
"Not a problem, Sheila. Hailey and I can just grab a drink in the lounge." He flashed a smile so smooth, so charming I thought she was going to drop to her knees and thank him for knowing her name.
Which, I’ll admit, I was impressed by.
I jumped when Connor's hand landed on my lower back. All this touching was nerve-wracking. But, let's be honest. He's so used to dating five-foot-eleven girls, he was probably aiming for my butt.
In the bar, we found a low table in a dim corner. The booth was a circular, plush-covered deal and as I slid in, Connor moved in behind me. He was better at playing this game out than I was.
"Okay," I said, trying to get
game back under control. I leaned against him in what would hopefully look like a comfy cuddle, but was really just to discuss our plan without being overheard. "Tonight we're out in public enough to be seen. We've known each other several weeks. This isn't a first date. It's the date where we just stop caring if we get caught since we've both started to take this a little seriously."
He dropped his arm behind me, cupping my shoulder again. His smile was somewhere between condescending and humoring. I made a note to self: Look those up to see how different they are.
"I'm sure you can manage to chill and enjoy yourself." His hand ran down my arm and then back up, slow, soothing movements with just the tips of his fingers that had me relaxing against him. "Will it really be so bad having a few nice meals with me?"
I tried to shake my head, but had to consider it first. Would it be hard? I didn't know enough about him. I knew he was the bachelor of the hour and he was a big shot in the baseball world. I knew stores had started selling Mrs. Ryan t-shirts and couldn't keep them in stock. I knew he dated a lot and had a very clear image as a playboy.
But I didn't know if he read or voted. I didn't know if he went to college and, if he attended, how he did. Did he have a pet? Where was he from? Was he close to his family beyond that brother he kept sucking into his public adventures?
When it came right down to it, I probably knew less about him than the average girl on my block. I doubted between his money and his lifestyle that we really had many of those things in common.
"Connor, I just—" How to put this nicely? "I just don't think we're the same kind of person. To me this is part of the job."
His lips flattened and at the same time managed to show an almost cruel smirk. "Are you afraid
going to fall in love with