Authors: Caitie Quinn
If sarcasm had a face, it would be the one he was looking at me with right now.
"I have no idea how you even got that out of what I just said." Because, really.
"So you don't think I'd be interested in you?"
"You don’t have to be mean about it.” I couldn’t believe he was bringing this up again. “I know your type. The whole world knows your type. I'm five inches too short, two cup sizes too small, and six years too old. Which, honestly, aren’t those girls starting to feel a little young to you? So why don't you leave the sarcasm for someone it will work on."
I pushed his arm off my shoulder and tried to slide farther down the booth.
"Hailey." He wrapped a hand around my wrist. "Stop. Settle down and listen."
I tried to pull away, but his loose hand had tightened on my arm.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean that sarcastically. I was joking. I thought you'd see the humor in it."
"You don't know me any more than I know you, so I don't know how you think I'd magically understand anything you'd joke about." I was afraid we’d never be speaking the same language at this rate.
"Okay. Listen. This is what I'm thinking. We're going to—"
"Hi, Mr. Ryan!"
"Sorry it took me so long.” She rushed on as if we’d been waiting hours. “What can I get you guys to drink?"
"Hi, Rachel. I'll have a Whiskey Neat." He turned toward me, forcing the attention my way. "Hailey, what did you want tonight?"
I wanted to understand what was going, to get his intentions and be able to play along. But, in lieu of that, I’d take an adult beverage.
So I asked, "What do you have for white wines?"
She ran through a list and thankfully there were a couple good ones I recognized.
We sat quietly, waiting for Rachel to bring our drinks, his hand doing that soothing up-and-down thing on my arm again.
After we'd been beveragized and Rachel had wandered off, Connor took a sip of his whiskey then paused, waiting for something.
"Here's what I'm thinking." He set the glass down and pulled his arm away so he could shift to face me. "Why don't we just think of this as hanging out? You know, as friends. You're obviously smart and clean up to be cute in that girl-next-door way. Maybe it will be fun. Being able to go out with someone and not have any pressure. Not to mention, the whole we're-pulling-something-over-on-everyone thing.” He gave me a very hopeful grin. I think it was dawning on him that he was the one with something to lose here. “It's kind of funny, don't you think?"
I thought about my rapidly approaching book release, focusing on the fact that this misadventure had the power to make or break it. I pushed those worries aside because you can only handle what you can handle.
"Sure. Why not?" I mean, what did I have to lose? It's not like I was escaping this, so I might as well go along for the ride.
"Great." He eased back and took another sip. "I think this will be just fine."
Yeah. So said the man used to getting everything handed to him on a silver platter.
To be fair, it was amazing how quickly he was adjusting to the plan. I guess when you’re as goal-driven as he apparently was, you embraced the route to a win and went full throttle. Or whatever baseball players did.
"But, I was serious.” I wanted this as clear as the short glass his whiskey glimmered in. “Do not embarrass me. No
on me during this or anything."
I glared, adding weight to my words.
"You're adorable." He grinned, ignoring the weighted words. "But, I promise. I know you seem to think I'm this womanizing jock. And, granted, I'm a jock and I like women, but that doesn't always equal the same thing."
"You've been featured on TMZ for goodness sake!" Normal people did not end up on gossip rag TV shows.
"And, it's not like you've managed to be faithful to a woman. Every week you're on a cover with at least one new girl under your arm. I especially loved the cover of you on four different dates with four different women in one week." It was my turn to casually sip my drink. I forced myself to take a moment to enjoy the forty-dollar glass before adding, "I didn't even know there were that many rich, beautiful, famous women in town. Do you have them imported?"
I had no idea where this Hailey was coming from. I couldn’t even stand up to my own agent, but with Connor…well, I guess I was afraid if I let him get a foot in the door, I’d never gain that territory back.
"This is your idea of relaxing and playing nice?" He leaned in, getting so close I could see the nearly silver flecks in his eyes. "I'm going to say this one more time. I do not cheat. I play fair. Every girl I go out with knows the deal and if things get even slightly serious, I treat them that way. So, if you don't mind, I'd like to be judged on my actions instead of by those supposed stories slapped together that don't represent an accurate picture of my life."
Oh. Um. Yeah. Well...He sounded angry enough that it was kind of hard not to believe him. So, maybe I'd been a bit quick to judge.
"Okay?" he demanded.
"Yes. I said okay, alright?"
We stared each other down and then he laughed.
"Hailey, I have to tell you. For a fake girlfriend, you're really high maintenance."
high maintenance?” I tried to lower my voice back down, but outrage was making me squeak. “You date some of the most high maintenance women on the planet."
"Maybe. But, I show up, my whiskey's waiting, they come down, they're happy to go anywhere, they’re good at small talk, and they don't badger me about the tabloids."
"You'll have to excuse me if I have zero experience understanding what goes into a tabloid date. I'm happy hanging out with my girlfriends, meeting guys who don't come with a rule book, and writing. It may sound boring to you, but it's a good life."
"That doesn't sound boring. It sounds nice."
. Kiss of death, if this had been a real date.
Maybe Connor was right. Maybe we just needed to write this off and enjoy ourselves.
"If we're going to pull this off,” I said, trying to play nice, “then tell me something about yourself? Like...where are you from?"
"You don't know that from all those tabloids you buy."
"I wouldn't buy that trash. It's horrible. Plus,” I went on, getting to what I
found offensive about those cheap rags. “I don't think any of them have hired a real copy editor in forever."
"And yet, you just spouted off about some very specific articles and covers."
"Oh." Oh, if only there were a way out of this. "I
have done a little research last night."
"On me?" That grin broke into a full out smile. "You researched me?"
"Just enough to find out if you're a serial killer or anything weird like that." And, when he'd known about my website, I'd realized I was behind the ball. If information was a commodity, then I was broke.
"And to take a count of how many famous, beautiful women I'd gone out with in the last month. Just so you know, I've also had a lovely evening with a lawyer and a woman who runs her own boutique."
Of course he had.
I refocused, trying to remember to toss my tabloid thoughts out and play fair.
"So, again," I pushed us back toward the right conversational track. "Where are you from?"
"I grew up outside Chicago. Nice suburb. A mom, a dad, a brother. Good times."
I tried to read between the lines, figure out what he wasn't saying. It seemed too straight forward.
"Hailey, I can see that brain of yours trying to create something where there's nothing to worry about. I have a great family. I have another condo there so I can spend time year round in my own place. Somewhere to go home to. I did alright in school. Not amazing, but would have gone to college even without the ball scholarship. I was a business major just in case. Nothing exciting. No dark hidden secret you'll stumble upon."
I'll admit, I was disappointed.
Of course, that was just his family background. There was still sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll to cover.
"Ever lived with someone before?" I asked.
"Really?" I found that hard to believe. You heard all these stories about athletes with steroids and models drugging to stay skinny and energetic. And he was at every A-list party on the East Coast. It seemed difficult to believe he hadn't indulged. "Never?"
"Nope. I went to school on scholarship, which meant getting random tests. Then, by the time we got out, I'd already seen what any type of drug could do."
"Keep going. This is actually kind of fun." He picked up that whiskey he was nursing.
Those must be the smallest sips ever. I was used to people drinking their drinks. But maybe he felt the same way about alcohol he felt about drugs.
"Or, maybe I should play this game too." He set the glass down and studied me like there might be some answers written right there on my forehead. "Your bio says you're from New England. Here?"
?" As if no one was actually
"Yes. I'm saving my lies for something bigger. Things that if I tell you, you’ll have to disappear forever with the knowledge.”
I was shocked when he laughed a true, deep laughter that had other people looking our way.
"I hadn't realized you were funny. I mean, your books are supposed to be funny and you say some odd stuff. But, purposefully funny I wasn't expecting."
"I'll try not to do it again." I kept my voice dry and made a strong attempt to not roll my eyes as he laughed again.
"Connor." An older man stood at the edge of our table, his smile more welcoming than I’d expected. "I didn't know you were coming in tonight."
"Mr. Antonelli." Connor slid out of the booth and wrapped an arm around the man. "Last minute plans. I thought it was time I showed Hailey where the good food is." He motioned to me and I wondered if I was supposed to slide out too, but Mr. Antonelli waved me down.
"This Hailey, she's the first girl you've bothered to introduce me to. She must be the reason you haven't been coming around with all those salad-eating-skinny girls lately.”
My college roommate was Italian. That was the only reason I knew I'd just been complimented instead of being called fat.
"She's definitely keeping me on my toes."
I watched them chat, Connor steering the conversation away from any outright lies.
"Where is Sheila seating you? Did you ask to sit outside? It's a nice night, not too breezy. We have those nice heat lamps, keep things snug. You might enjoy it."
I could see Connor struggling, trying to figure out what the right thing was and I realized something. I already knew he was smart enough to make the right call. Sure, we were going to argue more than any two humans should over the next few weeks, but we had the same endgame: Survive, get the right PR, and not kill each other—Or, per Connor's suggestion, enjoy each other's friendship.
"I think we'll sit inside this week. We're still...flying under the radar." He glanced my direction with one of those smiles that made you feel like you were in on a secret with him.
But, of course, I was.
It really was absurd.
We were still flying under the radar because we hadn't existed before this week. And, we didn't want insta-fame as a couple because that would be nuts.
Plus, I'd realized there were a few more people I needed to bring into the secret web of conspiracy to make this work.
"I understand.” Mr. Antonelli nodded as if this were very sage and he was in complete agreement. “Let me show you to a table then."
I slid to the edge of the booth and looked up to find Connor there, hand outstretched, to help me out.
Obviously if the fame, money, and good looks stopped getting him women, his charm could.
Mr. Antonelli showed us to a comfortable table in the corner where we'd be away from the hustle of the front door and the kitchen, but not shoved in a small alcove.
"I'll send Margo over to take your order. You know how she loves to see you." He put his hand over his heart as if he were sharing a secret of the love they all had.
"You just want the latest gossip,” Connor accused. “And, look at you willing to send your wife to do the dirty work."
It was funny seeing him laid back and joking with a restaurant owner. It wasn't something I expected. I kept waiting to see the slick side of him the media showed. The I'm-too-sexy-for-my…well, everything. He shook the man’s hand once more before sitting down and giving me his full attention.
But, at the same time there was still something guarded about him. It took me a moment to realize that while he seemed to genuinely enjoy the people he was introducing me to, he also was a little standoffish. His wall was just one of overwhelming friendliness.
"So, where were we?" He snapped his fingers, pulling me back from my study. "Oh, yes. I remember. Any pets?"
“Not since Franklin.” I regretted the words as soon as I said them. That wasn’t somewhere I wanted to go.
"And Franklin was..."
"A rescue beagle I brought home and hid from my landlord for four years."
"I didn't see any doggie stuff around."
I shouldn't have brought him up. It had been off the cuff—there was no
"No. He..." I really wanted that delete button. "He got away from his walker last spring and was hit by a car. They told me it was really fast. The poor kid couldn't have missed him if she'd been psychic. When I got there she couldn't stop crying."
And I hadn't been able to either. Not for days.
"And you went over and told her it was okay. That it wasn't her fault. That you understood even though you wanted to sit on the sidewalk and bawl?"
The cop who showed up had called me a soft-hearted idiot when he’d seen me trying to help the girl.
"Well, what was I supposed to do?” I focused on the sconce over his head and blink-blink-blinked the almost tears away. A year isn’t that long to be missing your dog. And, when it happened, it wasn’t like I was going to scream at the girl. There was a little blanket laid out over Franklin and she couldn’t stop staring at it and sobbing. “Anyone would have said that no matter how upset they were."