Party Girl's First Date by Rachel Hollis

Party Girl's First Date
Party Girl's First Date by Rachel Hollis
“Max Jeennnings!” I singsong my roommate’s name across the carpet just like Oprah announcing a free car.

As expected, she continues to ignore me. Too bad for her I know the one thing guaranteed to annoy her the most. Taylor Swift.
“Midnight . . .” I sing softly.

“Don’t,” she barks without looking up.

“You come and pick me up—no headlights.”

That did it.

Now she’s growling.

“Landon, I swear on all that is holy—”

Now she’s going to bring the Lord into this! And after all the conversations we’ve had lately about her language too.
“Max, don’t break a commandment! It’s not even dark outside yet!”

She’s sitting cross-legged on the sofa, hunched over her computer, and she must know I’ve tried on another outfit because she’s purposely avoiding looking up.

   “So it’s OK to use the Lord’s name in vain after-hours?” she grumbles.

   Uh, yes. It’s the most obvious thing in the world to me, but clearly she doesn’t know. I’ll explain.

   “Of course not; it just seems a little less offensive. Like drinking a wine cooler, or going braless in front of company. It’s never really the right thing to do, but at least after dark it’s less pronounced. Besides that, you promised you’d try to work on your language, remember?”

   Even with her head down I can still see her scowl grow. I wonder if she’s remembering the night she made me that promise. She’d had one too many cocktails, which made her more amenable to my suggestion that her language was unbecoming a lady.

   “That promise was made under duress,” she mutters to her screen.

   I raise my eyebrows nearly to my hairline.

   “That promise,” I tell her, “was made under vodka. That’s not the same thing and you know it.”

   Max snorts and goes back to studying whatever is on her screen. I go back to studying Max.

   The two of us could not be more different. I’m short, while she’s got legs up to her chin. I spend hours getting my long blonde hair to look this shiny, while she’s rocking more of an angry pixie cut. Match us up with Miko, a creative genius who glamorizes her own weirdo style, and we make for one heck of a mismatched triumvirate. Our wild differences are probably why we get along so well, though. I mean, who wants to hang out with replicas of themselves? Besides, like, maybe Kanye. He seems like he’d probably be super into that.

   I find Max huddled over her computer like this all the time. She’s clearly into whatever she’s looking at, but she’s always careful to keep whatever it is hidden from me. I just hope it isn’t anything weird. I had a great-aunt who spent years covering up the fact that she had a second family made up entirely of Marie Osmond dolls. She kept it quiet for ages too. In fact, the only reason anyone found out is that our cousin Demarius happened upon her in the Dollar General three towns over talking to one of her “babies” while she pushed it around in a pram covered in Chantilly lace.

   I’m not suggesting that Max would be into anything so odd, but she’s a very private person, and if she did have a secret collection of china babies dressed to look like pageant contestants, I’d have no way of knowing it.

   I smile at the ridiculous thought and then focus again on the task at hand. Maybe insistence will get her attention.

   “Please, Max, please? Scout’s honor—I really think this is the one!” I call across the living room.

   My voice is barely not a whine. I do this because I know the touch of desperation will tick her off.

   “You dress yourself every day, and you seem to have made it this far in life without my help.” She whips an angry hand off her keyboard and points to whatever crazy T-shirt she’s wearing today as some kind of evidence. “I’m not exactly the reigning fashion plate.”

   I allow myself a small smile, because she’s not looking up at me anyway. I knew if I annoyed her enough she’d engage, and if she’s grouchy at least she’s not zoning out in her own little world. I’ve started to worry about her lately. She’s seemed so aimless since she graduated, and while she’s opened up to me and Miko in a lot of ways, in some ways she’s more closed off than ever. So even though I know I drive her crazy, I keep prodding her because on some level, I think it’s good for Max to be challenged.

   Speaking of which, she’s still mesmerized by her screen. Time to bring out the big guns.

   “And yet when you need to, you can somehow bust out a designer ensemble and makeup inspired by WWD,” I say sarcastically. “And yeah, you only wear black nail polish, but you and I both know it’s Chanel. You know, at first I thought your bipolar style was accidental, but then when you did that smoky purple eye for Miko’s party and it was exactly like the last Burberry ad, I—”

   “Oh, for freak’s sake!” She slams her laptop closed and glares at me from across the room. I knew that would work.

   “Look, you’ve been my roommate for six months—”

   “Seven and a half,” I interrupt with a wink.

   Max doesn’t even pause for a breath.

   “And in that time you’ve managed to start and lose a job working at one of the biggest event-planning firms in the nation. I get that your boss was a soul-sucking nightmare, and that likely made your first months in LA feel like a profound life experience. Then, in sheer defiance of the laws of reality, you and Miko start your own company—”

   “All because of your support and encouragement,” I interrupt again.

   Again, she ignores me.

   “—and you’ve actually managed to grow your client base, which is, frankly, way more than anyone expected so soon. Top it off with the fact that you’re officially dating Brody now.”

   I can’t help but sigh a little at the mention of his name. My crush-level on this man is reaching some pretty epic proportions. But the interlude is brief; Max is still on her rant, and I’m going to have to say something or this could go on all day.

   “That’s a lot of big things in a short period of time, and I can understand how you’d think that somehow bonds us or whatever, but—”

   “Oh, come off it, Max,” I laugh. “I just want you to help me figure out what to wear. Like it or not, that’s what friends do, and despite your gruff exterior, your constant scowling, and your pretended indifference, that’s what we are. Now”—I wiggle my eyebrows dramatically—“what do you think of this one?”

   I strike an expectant pose not unlike the BCBG mannequin who inspired this sassy little ensemble. The outfit feels sophisticated to me, and for my first real date with Brody, I’m going to need all the help I can get. I tucked a tight white T-shirt into a pleated black silk skirt that falls just below my knees. Both the black booties and the little leather tuxedo jacket are loans from Miko, leftovers from the days when our boss enforced an all-black dress code. Also, since I spent over an hour doing it, I can safely say my makeup is flawless. My hair is twisted back in a low messy bun. I feel a little naked without my hair being teased up to Jesus, but I’m nervous about how nice a restaurant we’re going to, and I don’t want to look like a country bumpkin.

   Max finally looks me over. For a brief moment I actually think she might like my outfit, but then some emotion crosses her face so swiftly that I can’t make out what it is.

   “Not that one,” she says quickly.

   And now she’s turned away again, refusing to look me in the eye. What is this all about? I actually thought this combination was really pretty.

   “Really?” Just to make sure she understands the fabulousness of the skirt, I twirl around once to show it off. “It’s so cute, though.”

   “Really. Put the red one back on,” she barks before opening her computer back up.

   The red-and-pink dress she’s referring to is the outfit I showed her first. It’s the sweetest Kate Spade dress, with a big skirt and a tight-fitting bodice. I literally squealed when Mama and Daddy gave it to me for Christmas. The only reason I didn’t choose it is because it seemed a little overeager. I mean, who wears a party dress on a dinner date?

   “You don’t think that’s too loud?” I bite my lip. “Too, I don’t know, colorful for Hatfield’s?”

   “Clearly he likes loud and colorful, or he wouldn’t be dating you, right?” she says without missing a beat. “Honestly, I hope you’re embarrassed by the way you’re acting. I know drag queens who don’t spend this much time debating what to wear!”

   I can’t help but giggle at Max because she’s just so quick to get fired up. The funny thing is, I actually think she believes she’s stoic or calm, when really she’s the most emotional person I know. Because yeah, anger, outrage, annoyance—those are all emotions, and she wears them around like a favorite shirt.

   “You’re right, girl. I know you are. It’s just our first real date.” I turn to walk back down the hallway. “I wanna look nice. I needed a second opinion on what he might like.”

   “Yeah, because I’m the reigning intellect on what a man wants!” she calls after me.

   “Oh, you do too.” I roll my eyes.

   “What?” She sounds genuinely confused.

   “You do too know what a man likes. Particularly when the man in question is your brother!”

   I know she doesn’t need the reminder that I’m dating her big brother, since she still does her best to pretend it isn’t happening. I, on the other hand, do my best to ruffle her feathers because I have a sneaking suspicion the best thing for Max is to have some friends who aren’t afraid to tick her off. And I’m certainly not afraid of that; heck, I consider it a vocation.

   Back in my bedroom I slip out of the outfit I have on and hang it all neatly in the closet. It takes me a hot minute to get my hair out of its pins and back into its natural state of big and bouncy. By the time I hear a knock on the front door, I’m ready to go, at least physically. Mentally I’m freaking out.

   Brody and I have gone surfing; we’ve hung out at his house and bars and Max’s birthday party. And yes, we’ve kissed. Holy Moses, have we kissed. But our relationship is about nine minutes old, and it didn’t exactly get off to the easiest of starts. I so don’t want to mess everything up, and there are oh so many ways I could do that. First of all, we’re total opposites. He’s thirty-two, which is nine years older than I am. And—I’m just gonna say it—he’s rich. Like kind of stupid crazy wealthy. His being wealthy wouldn’t make a difference, except that I am most definitely not rich and never have been. Plus I’m forever saying these things in front of him that make me feel like a hillbilly, which—thank the good Lord—he seems to find charming instead of embarrassing. And lastly there’s the way he looks. Blessed assurance—he’s so hot it’s basically unnatural. He is the most beautiful man I—or anyone else for that matter—have ever seen, and sometimes it takes my breath away and I have to remind myself to breathe.

   Like right now.

   Breathe, Landon!

   I take a strangled breath and give myself one more glance in the long mirror. My striped pink-and-red dress looks great, and so do my hair and the makeup that took me an hour and a half to apply. I’ve got my false eyelashes on, but I know he won’t mind; Brody knows the lashes come part and parcel with dating me. Last but not least, I step into the highest pair of black peep-toe shoes I’ve ever seen. I saved and saved for months to buy my first pair of Louboutins, because that red bottom said as much to our potential event clients as my portfolio ever would. It said we were successful enough that I could afford $800 shoes, and in LA perception is everything. So I’d saved up and bought the highest, sassiest pair I could find. Unfortunately I haven’t totally broken them in yet, so there’s a really good chance I’m getting a blister tonight. Oh well, a little blister is worth it since these shoes make my gams look about a mile long.

   I take one last deep breath and then open the bedroom door.

   —

   When I walk into the kitchen, I can feel the residual tension of something between Max and Brody, but I’m too wound up to comment on it. I’m dealing with enough tension of my own.

   I can’t even bring myself to look up at Brody. One quick glance at him sitting at the counter on our only functioning barstool shows me that he is wearing navy-blue slacks and a light-blue button-down, which is his typical pulled-together style. But his hair—oh, his hair—is in tousled dark-blond disarray, like he ran his hands through it too many times. His tan and the natural highlights in his hair might appear fake to most people who know his net worth, but I know they’re from the time he spent surfing every morning this week. The fact that I have insider information about this businessman/surfer boy never ceases to make my stomach flip.

   That stomach flip is typically followed by long moments of me gazing adoringly at him. At the time I feel dreamy and beautiful, but Miko has assured me that my “weird staring thing” actually looks like I’m about to murder him and make a coat out of his skin—her words, not mine.

   So to avoid that, I don’t look up. I walk around the bar to Max and take a drink of the cocktail in front of her without even asking for permission or stopping to see what it is.

   The drink is strong and the flavors unexpected, just like Max.

   “That’s a good one,” I say because it’s the truth. “Is that pepper in there?” Now I’m stalling.

   “Just a little.” Max gives me her usual shrug.

   “I like it—gives it a little kick.” I smile down at the glass.

   OK, Landon, for Pete’s sake! Man up and act like a lady!

   I finally look across the bar at Brody and say the most brilliant thing I can think of.

   “Hi.”

   “Hi,” he says back.

   Oh, what the heck. I’ll just be honest with him; that’s got to be better than continuing to act like a three-year-old.

   “I’m a little nervous.”

   Brody’s face splits into a grin. I relax for the first time in hours.

   “Me too,” he tells me.

   I can’t even help it—I smile so big my face hurts. I smile so big my heart hurts. I feel giddy and excited and so darn happy, I might implode. I really, really like this boy—man, whatever—and the way he’s smiling back at me says that he likes me too.

   “Well, this is weird,” Max announces, snapping both of us out of our staring contest.

   She grumbles something else about getting to work and promptly leaves the room. So now there’s nothing to do but actually start this date.

   Brody walks around the bar into the kitchen to put his empty glass in the sink.

   “You ready?” he asks.

   Yes, I am absolutely ready for whatever is next.

   “Yep.”

   Which is how I find myself hopping up inside his Range Rover a few minutes later, headed out on our first real date.

   —

   It’s important to note the distinction between a date and a real date, because Brody and I will now have had both. When he originally asked me out several months ago, I told him no for a whole host of reasons that mostly revolved around the idea that I was totally overwhelmed by the reality of dating a grown man. Which would, I suppose, make me a grown woman.

   Don’t get me wrong; I feel grown up in a lot of ways. I moved to Los Angeles from Texas last year and made it through the nightmare of working my first job at Selah Smith Events. I now run my own event-planning firm, and we’re actually doing really well. I’m almost twenty-four years old. I support myself, pay my taxes, and remember to vote—most of the time—so I know that I am an adult. But as far as men are concerned, I’m a spring chicken. Which is to say, this chick has very little experience with boys and absolutely none with men.

   OK, yes, sure, I went to the drive-in after football games in high school. But that was in a group setting and rarely more than holding hands and an occasional make-out session with whatever member of the football team I was infatuated with that week. When college rolled around all I cared to focus on was how quickly I could graduate so I could move to LA. If I wasn’t working to save money, I was studying for class, and men were the last thing on my mind. So when Brody asked me out months ago, I told him no. Then he somehow finagled time with me by taking me on a “non-date.” Learning to surf with him is an experience I won’t ever forget, and in the time since then we’ve had so much fun hanging out. But no, we’ve never formally gone out to dinner for a romantic evening, and so that’s what tonight is. Our first real date.

   Brody gets into the car, and when he turns the key, sports talk radio turns on along with the engine. He grins and lowers the volume.

   “Would you like to listen to something else?” he asks.

   I grin back.

   “You trust me with the radio?”

   “Barely,” he teases.

   Just for that, I flip right on over to the country station. His lips purse, but he doesn’t say anything.

   “How was work—” I start to ask at the exact same time that he says, “You look gorgeous—”

   I’m sure I’m blushing like a peach now.

   “Work was busy,” he says. “How about you?”

   I smile, remembering earlier today when Miko and I danced around the apartment after finding out we’d booked a new client. I suppose we’ll eventually be more ladylike about the whole thing, but we’re only a few months into owning our company, and so for now, we have a dance party every time we sign a new contract.

   “Work was great. We booked a new client today, and they have a really fun theme to work with.”

   He smiles at me indulgently.

   “And you love a theme.”

   “I love a theme,” I agree happily.

   And it’s the truth. Tropical, western, Asian fusion, Greek mythology—I want it all! I love it when a client gives us direction for an event, and then it’s up to us to make the idea come to life. I especially love when the theme is obscure or sort of tacky, because I believe wholeheartedly that anything can be produced in a chic way. A bride wants tulle or carnations or even those tissue-paper bells from the eighties? Bring it on! Miko and I can find a way to make anything look gorgeous!

   Fifteen minutes later we pull up to the restaurant’s valet just as Blake Shelton finishes singing about neon signs. Brody gives me a pointed look before hitting the mute button.

   I laugh in response.

   “Oh yes, because heaven forfend the valet should know we were in here listening to country music.”

   I make sure he sees me roll my eyes before I turn and step down with the assistance of the second valet holding my door.

   Yes, that’s the kind of restaurant we were at—not just one valet but a whole legion of them there to assist you with whatever kind of thing you might need. Something I’ve learned after living in LA for a while: if you’re curious how expensive a place might be, don’t look at their menu; count the number of eager valets waiting out front. Rich people do not like to wait for their cars.

   Brody walks around the car to meet me on the sidewalk and reaches for my hand. Even though he’s done it before, I still have to repress a silly giggle that we hold hands now—with each other—in public.

   “I’m happy to put up with your terrible taste in music,” he says as we walk to the entrance of the restaurant. “That doesn’t mean I want anyone thinking it’s mine.”

   The horrified look on his face isn’t any kind of an act.

   Poor Brody. Poor hot, sexy, wealthy Brody has everything going for him and a list of positive attributes a mile long. But he’s got some bad qualities too, and one of those is popping up now. He’s a snob. He was born and raised in a very wealthy family, and because of that he tends to look down his nose at a lot of things. The good news is that he’s aware he does it, and he really does try hard not to be so obnoxious, but the snob peeks through every once in a while. And just like Max needs to be pushed and ruffled, so does he. It’s a good thing for both of them that I’m not afraid to make them uncomfortable. I hum “Ring of Fire” loud enough to draw attention. It actually makes his smile bigger.

   The restaurant is a study in modern design but has enough hipster touches—exposed brick, raw-wood accents, farm to table–style ingredients—to be thoroughly LA. It’s kind of a foodie paradise, and I’ve been dying to try it forever. I used to make reservations for my boss here all the time, so it’s super exciting to be having dinner here now.

   I head towards the hostess stand to check in, but before I can get very far, Brody pulls me back fast. I look over my shoulder in surprise.

   “Aren’t we going to sit down?”

   He jerks his chin off to the right, towards the restaurant’s small bar.

   “Let’s grab a drink first.”

   Admittedly I ate an entire sleeve of crackers earlier in my nervous agitation about tonight’s date, so I’m not even close to hungry. I nod and follow his lead.

   We walk up to the counter, and I wait as he pulls out a barstool for me.

   “Don’t we need to check in and tell them we’re here?” I ask.

   Before he can answer, the bartender hurries over to us with the eagerness of a springer spaniel.

   “Good evening, Mr. Ashton. What can I get you?”

   Brody’s smile is self-deprecating as he hands me the cocktail menu.

   “They know we’re here.”

   I study a cocktail menu that’s roughly the size of a hotel Bible and try to cover up my embarrassment.

   I forget.

   Because he’s sweet and funny, and because I’ve seen him laid back and pissed off and even terrified, I sometimes forget who he is. I forget that Brody is Brody Ashton and that he comes from a family of some of the most successful restaurateurs in the world. So if he walks into a high-end restaurant like this, in the city he grew up in, of course they know he’s here, and of course we don’t have to check in. He’s a golden boy in LA, bright and shiny as the sun, and they saw him coming from a mile away.

   Once again I am reminded of how out of my league I am. The golden boy looks at me, and my heart freaks out as if to emphasize the point.

   “Do you know what you’d like?”

   I should probably choose one of the fancy-looking drinks on the menu or make like Max and ask the bartender to create something custom for me. But the truth is, I feel nervous and I’d rather have something familiar than something impressive.

   “Jack, rocks,” I tell the bartender.

   The bartender’s tiny hipster mustache twitches almost imperceptibly. His eyes dart to Brody in some kind of confusion.

   “We have a lovely Macallan 17,” the bartender tells me. “I’m sure you’d enjoy that much more.”

   I know from working with event clients that if an alcohol has a number in its name, it costs four times what a regular drink does.

   “Jack is just fine,” I tell both of them.

   The bartender looks like he’s fighting nausea. My date is fighting a smile.

   “Sam”—Brody looks back at the bartender—“do you have the Sinatra Select?”

   Sam’s shoulders visibly lose their tension.

   “An excellent choice, Mr. Ashton,” he tells him. “Will you be having the same?”

   “Please,” Brody says, finally taking a seat at the barstool next to me.

   I watch the barkeep suspiciously.

   “What did you just order me?”

   “I ordered us Jack Daniel’s.”

   I frown at his answer.

   “Yes, but from what year?”

   “Oh look,” Brody calls with far too much enthusiasm. “The drinks are here.”

   I will not be a pain about this, because he did invite me on this date and I’m not going to fight him over the price of everything. But I have a sneaking suspicion this small lowball glass is holding two inches and fifty dollars’ worth of whiskey. I make a mental note to Google it later.

   Brody raises his glass into the space between us.

   “What should we toast to?”

   “Um—you choose,” I reply.

   He considers it for a moment before his blue eyes light up with an idea.

   “To freckles?”

   I roll my eyes and try to fight a smile at the reminder of the time we went surfing and he discovered my freckles.

   “To blue lips?” he tries again.

   This time I can actually feel my blush a moment before he leans over and kisses my forehead.

   “You are so sweet,” he whispers into my hair.

   I’m sure I’m doing the whole serial-killer stare that Miko warned me about, but I can’t help it—he’s so sweet. He straightens back up in his chair, and I try to find my composure.

   “OK, how about to pancakes?”

   This time I can’t hold back my laughter at the reminder of the only meal we’ve ever eaten together. I nod and clink my glass against his.

   “To pancakes,” I agree.

   The whiskey flavors are smooth and smoky and much more refined than what I typically drink. I shiver as I feel the liquor work its way down to my toes. I set the drink back on the embossed cocktail napkin it came with.

   “So is this what you do?”

   His eyebrows come together.

   “Excuse me?”

   “On a date.” I grin at him. “Is this what you do when you go on a date?”

   When he continues to look confused, I elaborate.

   “You know—take her to Hatfield’s, drinks in the bar.” I twirl a finger to indicate the space around us. “Dinner is prix fixe, share a dessert.”

   Brody gives me a wary smile before answering.

   “Hatfield’s, no,” he says shortly. “I don’t usually bring dates here. But the rest of it, yes—this is what I usually do.”

   He sounds annoyed and upset, and I have no idea what I said to make him react like that. I watch as his jaw tenses like he’s biting down hard on his molars. He reaches for his glass.

   Are we not allowed to talk about other dates? Is that a rule?

   I’m such a spaz! Why do I always let my mouth run away with me?

   I had no idea.

   I fiddle nervously with my cocktail napkin. It’s probably better just to ask.

   “Is that not—should I not have asked that?” My voice is so low, I’m not sure if he hears me.

   Brody puts down his glass and studies me.

   “I suppose it depends on why you asked.”

   Yeesh, I really wet the bed with this one, didn’t I?

   I shrug helplessly.

   “I was trying to make conversation.” I resist the urge to bite my lip nervously. “I was curious if this is what you typically do on a date.”

   His blue eyes scan my face as if looking for some kind of answer.

   “You’re not . . . upset, to talk about women I’ve dated in the past?”

   Upset? Why would I be upset about that? I honestly never even considered it.

   He must see the confusion in my face, because he gives me more information.

   “A lot of women don’t want to hear about other women”—he pauses to swipe a hand through his hair before finishing his sentence quickly—“that a man has dated before her.”

   My eyebrows furrow in confusion.

   “But I didn’t even know you then,” I tell him, still confused.

   Brody shakes his head slowly like he’s looking at some kind of alien life-form.

   He still hasn’t responded when the bartender materializes in front of us again and slides the bill over to him. Brody takes out his wallet and puts it on the counter. He removes a black Amex and slides it inside the leather holder next to the bill without once glancing at the total. I didn’t even know they made black credit cards. I wonder what that’s all about.

   I’ll contemplate that later, when I try to figure out why talking about other dates annoys Brody so much. I reach out to take another drink but get pulled up short by a terrible thought.

   Once again the filter between my brain and my mouth is nowhere in sight.

   “Wait—you’re not dating anyone else now, are you?”

   I’d like to believe it didn’t come out as a terrified hiss, but I try not to lie to anybody, especially myself. I didn’t know we were supposed to clarify these things up front. I just assumed if he was dating me he wouldn’t be talking to anyone else.

   I definitely won’t hyperventilate while this realization comes crashing down around me. I definitely won’t.

   Brody’s face softens and then gains tension as he fights the urge to laugh. Smart man that he is, he finds a way to keep from doing it.

   “No, Landon.” He tugs playfully on the end of my hair. “I’m not dating anyone but you.”

   I immediately relax “Oh, great—me neither,” I reply stupidly. I feel infinitely happier, so I want to make sure he understands. “Then I’ll stick with my answer. No, I didn’t know you when you were dating these other people. So why would it upset me to hear about them? It’s what made you into who you are, right?”

   Happy that that’s settled, I take another sip of my overpriced whiskey.

   “Right.” He’s looking at me like I’m an alien again.

   He and I are very different people, and I figure I’m probably going to see that look on his face a lot. Better to just learn to love it now.

   I’m not sure if it’s this fancy whiskey or the joy that comes with the confirmation that Brody and I are only dating each other, but I’m feeling fabulous all of a sudden, and not even his clear confusion about me can change that. I take another happy sip of my drink.

   “New Year’s,” he mumbles.

   I’ve been staring down into the dregs of my whiskey, so I look at him to make sure I heard him right.

   “What?” I ask.

   He clears his throat.

   “New Year’s was the last time I had a date with someone else.”

   And now I’m staring at him like a deer in headlights. I get the impression he doesn’t normally share these details and something about our conversation made him want to, which accounts for the Bambi look that must be on my face now.

   Brody reaches out and tucks a piece of hair behind my ear. I’m utterly frozen in place as his fingers run the length of the strand all the way to the bottom. He doesn’t seem to realize I’ve stopped breathing, because he doesn’t let go of that piece of hair; he holds on to it and gently rubs the ends between his finger and his thumb.

   “Do you remember that night?” His voice comes out whisper soft.

   I’m pretty sure I’ve swallowed my tongue, because all I can do is nod.

   “I walked up to the lounge to check on you guys and found you on the dance floor,” he says as he wraps the strand of my hair slowly around his index finger. “You were doing the sprinkler, and you had on that gold dress.” He smiles at the memory. “You were this tiny little firecracker, and you were laughing so hard—and I was done. I called my date and canceled plans to meet her at some party. I pretended I had to work the rest of the night—all so I could watch you dance. You were like a sparkler—so bright and vibrant, and your glow lit up everyone around you. I watched them watch you, and I knew”—he takes a breath—“if I wanted to hold you myself, I couldn’t keep living life like I had been. Because I knew, Landon, someday we were going to find ourselves here, and I wanted to be able to look you in the eye and tell you this story. That as soon as I saw you in that tiny gold dress, there hasn’t been anybody else.”

   I don’t blink. I don’t think I even breathe.

   Brody is so earnest and sincere, and it’s the best thing anyone has ever said.

   “Well, isn’t this special,” a hateful voice snaps, intruding into the space between us.

   Brody immediately turns. But I don’t need to. I’d know that voice in my sleep, and more recently it’s been present in my nightmares. I’d know that tone and the ugly way she hisses out any word that starts with an “S” anywhere. But more than that, I don’t need to look because I knew it was only a matter of time before I had to confront her again, and given my luck, it would happen when the man of my dreams is telling me the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard.

   I blow out a quick breath of disappointment and then turn my face to get a good look at the familiar scowl on hers.

   “Hello, Selah,” I say quietly.

   She doesn’t acknowledge me, not that I really thought she would. She looks down her nose directly at Brody.

   “Still slumming, B?” she sneers.

   Brody lets go of my hair but reaches for my hand. I hope he can’t feel my heart hammering through my palm. I wish she didn’t have this effect on me; I wish I wasn’t so nervous, but this woman terrorized me for months, and it’s hard not to revert right back to the person I was when I worked for her.

   “What are you doing here, Selah?” Brody asks, managing to sound totally bored.

   The bored thing is one of his best tricks. I can feel the tension in his hand and see that he’s biting down on his molars in agitation again, but if you didn’t know him well, you’d think he was totally indifferent.

   “What am I doing here?” She runs her fingers quickly through the ends of her bob. “I’m celebrating my birthday. Surely you haven’t forgotten, B. We spent this night together last year.”

   He squeezes my hand tighter. “That’s right—me and two hundred other people were at your birthday party last year. But you’ll have to forgive me for forgetting the date; I can’t be expected to remember such inconsequential information.”

   Ooh, point for Brody.

   Selah’s eyes narrow at him.

   “Well,” she sniffs, “I’ve rented out half the restaurant. That’s fifty-two of my guests to watch you and this child who tried to bring down my company work your way through a four-course meal. I’m sure that won’t seem inconsequential at all.”

   Her eyes land on me for exactly as long as it takes to flash a viperous smile. Then she walks back to the hostess stand without a backward glance.

   “Do you think it’s really her birthday?” Brody asks as we watch her go.

   I nod without looking at him. “Yes, unfortunately there is a whole host of random information stored in my brain from my time with her. Her acupuncturist’s cell phone number, the street address to her parents’ vacation home in Vail, and her birthday. It’s definitely today.”

   Brody sighs and then looks at me.

   “We have to go somewhere else.”

   I’m actually surprised he’d let her chase him away. I try to lighten the mood.

   “Didn’t you have a whole plan?” I jab one finger playfully into his stomach.

   And Holy Moses, how many abs does he have under that shirt?

   Clearly he can’t tell that I’m imagining him shirtless, thank the Lord. He looks back over his shoulder at the hostess and waves his free hand in some sort of quick gesture.

   “I have plans.” He looks back at me. “And not one of them includes having our night ruined by her.” He pulls me towards the door. “We’ll go somewhere else just as great. OK?”

   I really should stop daydreaming about his stomach muscles.

   “OK,” I sigh wistfully.

   I hurry along as fast as these high, high shoes can take me.

   —

   Whatever the hand gesture was, it must have had something to do with the valet, because his car is waiting for us at the curb when we get there.

   “Where to now?” I ask when he helps me into my seat.

   “I’m not sure, but I’m going to figure it out.”

   He closes the door behind me and walks around to the driver’s side. As soon as he gets in, he hits a contact on his phone and the car fills with the sound of ringing from the Bluetooth.

   “You know I have Cade’s show tonight.” A young guy’s annoyed voice fills the car. “You promised I had the night off—”

   “Michael,” Brody says, interrupting the small tirade, “you’re on speakerphone.”

   It’s totally silent for a moment. When Michael starts speaking again, I can hear the smile in his voice.

   “So Landon is in the car? The Landon?” he asks gleefully.

   I look out the window and try not to blush. I’ve heard Brody talk about his assistant before, but it’s really sweet to know that he’s heard about me too.

   “You understand I can fire you, right?” Brody asks, but there’s no bite in his tone.

    “Please,” Michael snorts. “Do you know how many times you’ve threatened to do that over the last four years?”

   “Clearly not enough,” Brody grumbles under his breath.

   “Yes, well, what can I do for you? I’m literally minutes from walking into the theater, and you know I can’t have my phone on in there.”

   “I need new reservations,” Brody says.

   “What happened to your old ones?” Michael sounds exasperated again.

   “Don’t worry about it. Just get me new ones.” Brody is starting to sound pretty exasperated himself.

   “I need to find new ressies in the twelve minutes before the show starts and it has to fit your criteria?”

   “Yes,” Brody snaps. “This can’t be that hard.”

   “At least one Michelin star, romantic, intimate.” Michael starts listing things off in what I assume is his Brody voice. “And it can’t be somewhere you’ve taken—”

   “Which way am I driving, Michael?” Brody asks loudly.

   A long sigh fills the car through the cell phone speaker. Then Michael says quickly, “Drive towards the Westside. I’ll call you back.”

   The line goes dead, and music fills the car again. Brody pulls out into traffic, and when I turn to look at him, he’s running a hand through his hair in agitation. I need to try to make him feel better.

   “We don’t have to go somewhere special. I’d be totally happy anywhere. I think there’s a Cheesecake Fa—” I can’t even finish the sentence because the look on his face is so mortified. I bite my lip to keep from laughing.

   “OK,” I say gently. “You choose the place.”

   His phone rings again, and as soon as he touches the button, Michael starts talking.

   “Can you make it to The Wilshire in half an hour?” Michael demands.

   Brody glances at the clock and the relatively empty street as we drive down La Brea towards the freeway.

   “Absolutely,” he says.

   “All right, I had to beg them to fit you in and you cannot be even five minutes late, because they have a huge party coming in at nine and if you miss your window you’re out of luck.”

   “OK,” Brody tells him.

   “All right, the little usher holding the door is super pissed at me right now. I have to go—and I’m shutting off my phone for the next three hours, Ashton, so don’t even think of trying to call me.”

   “OK, Michael—” Brody tries to cut him off.

   “Bye, Landon. Have fun!” Michael sings over Brody’s voice.

   I can’t stop my giggle.

   “Bye, Michael. Thanks for your help,” I call back.

   When Brody hangs up he looks over at me expectantly.

   “Is The Wilshire OK?”

   “Honestly, I’m really easy to please.” I smile at him. “And I very rarely get to go to dinner, so The Wilshire sounds awesome. Do you think we’ll be able to make it to Santa Monica in half an hour, though?”

   I glance at the clock on the dash, knowing after months of living in Los Angeles how driving always takes twice as long as you think it will.

   “It’s after rush hour, and I drive pretty fast.” He throws me a cocky grin. “We’ll be just fine.”

   He pushes down on the accelerator, and we rush off towards the beach.

   —

   Twenty-five minutes and six miles later, we’re sitting in a parking lot.

   Well, not a real parking lot, but bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 10 is a special kind of hell you have to experience firsthand to truly understand. Brody stopped speaking about ten minutes ago, and his hair is ruffled every which way from running his hand through it anxiously. We’re nowhere near the restaurant, and there’s no chance of us making it there on time. In fact, if we could make it there in less than an hour, it would be a wine-making Jesus kind of miracle. One of us needs to call it like it is, and based on the death grip he has on the steering wheel, I’m guessing it’s going to need to be me.

   “Brody, we can just go somewhere around here,” I say gently. “There’s no use going to all of this trouble.”

   He lets out a long sigh. When he finally looks over at me, his grin is self-deprecating.

   “I wanted to do something nice for you,” he says into the space between us.

   Good grief, you’d think he’s as nervous about this as I am! Apparently he doesn’t realize how much I like him or how little the location matters so long as he’s the one next to me. I don’t want him feeling like he always has to impress me. OK, time to have some courage.

   “Hey.” I reach for his hand.

   Since the freeway is still at a standstill, he turns and looks right at me.

   “Anything I do with you is nice,” I tell him sincerely. “We could get McDonald’s drive-through or hit up the ninety-nine cents store or go do laundry at the fluff ’n’ fold down the street from my house. It would still be nice.”

   I click my tongue in response to the look on his face.

   “You’ve never done any of those things, have you?” I laugh at him.

   “God, no,” he says with a mock shudder. But then he smiles, and some of the tension falls out of his shoulders. “Thank you for saying that, though. I feel exactly the same way.”

   I smile back and fluff my hair dramatically.

   “All right then, pal, what do you say we just get off on the next exit and find somewhere nearby?”

   Brody is already easing into the next lane before I finish the comment.

   “Sounds like a—”

   The sound of his phone ringing cuts him off. Brody frowns at the unknown number lighting up the monitor on the dash.

   “This is Brody,” he answers, sounding like the crisp businessman I’d first met.

   “Mr. Ashton, I’m so happy I caught you,” says a breathless young woman. “This is Elena, the hostess at Hatfield’s. We think you may have left your wallet in the bar.”

   Brody immediately checks three pockets, and I wince as all of them come up empty. His mouth forms more than one silent curse.

   “Thank you, Elena. Do you have it with you now?”

   “Yes, sir. We’ll lock it up in the general manager’s office until you get back.”

   Brody and I turn in unison to look at the gridlock on the freeway heading back in the direction we’ve just come. If anything, it’s worse than the westbound side. It would take us forever to get back to Hollywood. Brody thanks the woman on the phone and ends the call.

   “I can’t believe I did that.” He sounds annoyed. “I’m never forgetful. The eastbound traffic is a nightmare; it’ll take us forever to get back across town.”

   He shakes his head in dismay.

   Time to step it up. I plaster on my best smile. This really isn’t that big of a deal.

   “We can grab it later, or maybe you could send Michael over there tomorrow?” I offer helpfully.

   Brody frowns, apparently confused about the direction I’m headed.

   “That doesn’t do us much good tonight. It’ll take a while, but plenty of places will still be open when we get there.”

   “Brody, I have my wallet,” I tell him cheerfully. “I can get it this time.”

   Oh Lord, if I thought he turned green when I mentioned the ninety-nine cents store, it was nothing compared to the look on his face now.

   “Absolutely not.” He hits the blinker and quickly drives up the road, apparently deciding that side streets are better than freeways right now.

   I fold my arms across my chest in exasperation. How did I know he was going to be this guy?

   “It’s really not a big deal,” I try again.

   “It’s our first real date,” he counters. “I invited you out, and you are not paying for anything.”

   I blow out a long breath that makes one curl dance across my cheek. How do I proceed here without offending his ego and his pride? He takes another right, and I recognize the street and then realize how close we are to one of his clubs.

   “Hey, isn’t The Directory around here somewhere? And come to think of it, Q7 isn’t that far away either.” Both of them are Barker-Ash properties, and if he is insistent on paying, surely he could put our dinner on his account or something.

   “They are,” he says slowly, before pushing a hand through his hair again. “It’s just . . .”

   He trails off, and I can’t tell if he’s going to finish or if he’ll spend the rest of the trip caught in whatever thought process he’s found himself in.

   “It’s just . . .” I try to lead him to the end of the sentence.

   He sighs loudly.

   “It’s just, I go to those places a lot—I mean, I’ve gone to those places a lot. I really wanted to take you somewhere I’ve never—I mean—”

   Oh, I get it.

   Suddenly Michael complaining about Brody’s stipulations makes much more sense.

   “Somewhere you’ve never taken another date before?” I ask carefully.

   “Yes,” he says, before laughing quietly.

   I can’t tell if he’s laughing at himself or the situation. But either way, I refuse to let male pride ruin my night.

   “So you want to go to a specific place, and it can’t be one of your clubs, but I’m not allowed to pay, and you don’t have your wallet. Do I have that right?” I ask incredulously.

   “Yes?” It sounded like a question, maybe because he was starting to realize how ridiculous this was becoming.

   “OK. If you’re worried about your wallet being in unsafe hands—”

   “No, it’s fine,” he says warily. “I can have Michael grab it on his way back home tonight.”

   “All right then, this isn’t a big deal. You need to take a breath, stop trying to control everything—which is impossible, by the way—and let me pay.” I wave my black clutch at him. It’s filled with more than enough credit cards to get us through the night in one piece. “I want to hang out with you, and there are some really fun places around here, but you’re going to have to loosen up.”

   He looks dubiously at my clutch then at me. Finally he nods.

   “Speaking of which”—I point left so he can get into the turn lane—“I know the perfect spot to get our next drink.”

   “You don’t want dinner first?” he asks, making the left turn.

   “I do want dinner, but first I think you need to chill out.” I wiggle my eyebrows at him. “And I have an idea.”

   “Why does that make me nervous?” he asks with a chuckle.

   “Because you’re a very smart man.” I grin over at him. “Make a right up here.”

   —

   “We’re uh . . . slightly overdressed for this,” Brody yells over the sound of Bon Jovi wailing from a jukebox that is at least as old as I am.

   I look down at my gorgeous dress and his ridiculously expensive outfit, and while I agree in my head, there’s no way I’m going along with anything he says right now. He needs to stop being so uptight about this whole thing.

   “Nobody cares what you wear at St. Nick’s,” I yell back to him. “What can I get you?”

   I belly up to the bar and wave at a bartender the size of a Prius.

   Brody looks around the raucous bar with distaste. It’s filled with people from all walks of life and furniture from every decade. Neon signs fill up most of the walls, and half-broken Christmas lights hang from the ceiling. It’s a total hole-in-the-wall, but I’ve only ever had a great time here, and if he’d just embrace it, I know he would too.

   “Brody!” I sing his name out. “What do you want?”

   “Uh . . .” He eyes the alcohol options. “Stella, I guess.”

   “Two Stellas, please,” I announce to the bartender and slap down my card—which is definitely not black, just regular old green and white—on the bar. The bartender takes my card and replaces it with two bottles of Stella. I nod when he asks if I want to keep it open. A couple nearby gets up to leave, and I quickly grab their barstools. Brody is preoccupied by the group of bikers across the room, but he finally takes the seat next to me.

   “Let’s play ‘I’ve Never,’” I suggest to get his attention back.

   His blue eyes sparkle with amusement.

   “How does that work?” He takes a drink of his beer.

   “We take turns saying things we’ve never done, and if the other person has done it, they have to take a drink of their beer.” I take a small sip of my own drink, waiting for his response.

   “OK,” he says slowly, clearly not sure where this is going.

   I pretend to think about my choice, but the truth is that I know exactly where I’m going with this.

   “I’ve never . . . been out of the country,” I say with a smile.

   “Really?” he asks, totally shocked. “Not even Mexico—or Canada?”

   Bless his heart. He really is so far removed from the reality that most people don’t have access to private jets and unlimited bank accounts.

   I shake my head and tap his bottle with a pink nail. “Drink up, buddy.”

   He takes a swig while he considers me for a moment.

   “Your turn,” I remind him.

   “Right, um, I’ve never . . . been skydiving.”

   I smile and shake my head. “Sorry, I’ve never done that either. My turn! I’ve never been inside a private plane.”

   Brody looks suspicious and starts to say something but takes another drink instead.

   “I’ve never . . . been bungee jumping?” he tries.

   “You’re kind of terrible at this game.” I laugh at him, shaking my head again. I’ve never been bungee jumping either. “I’ve never had more than a thousand dollars in my wallet at one time.” I eyeball his beer pointedly.

   “Are you kidding me?”

   I know he means the game I’m playing, but I purposefully misunderstand.

   “When I had to give Max the deposit for the apartment, I got eight hundred dollars out of my bank account and I was sick as a dog, nervous that I was going to lose it or be robbed.” I take a sip of my beer while he laughs. “But no, that’s the most I’ve ever had at one time. I imagine you have had more than that, so that’s another drink for you, pal.”

   He grins and takes another big drink. “I know what you’re doing,” he says, fighting a smile.

   I am the picture of innocence.

   “And what’s that?”

   His eyebrow rises dubiously.

   “Trying to get me drunk?”

   “I suspect it would take more than a beer to do that, but it wasn’t my intention, no. I just want you to relax, and a silly drinking game seemed like the best option. It was either this or putting on “Roxanne” and drinking every time he says ‘red light.’” I shrug and take another sip. “But I didn’t have any quarters for the jukebox.”

   He chuckles and finishes off the beer.

   “Who says I’m not relaxed? I’m the picture of laid back. I’m the king of go with the flow. Come on, you’re lagging behind.” He points to my half-empty bottle. “What are we drinking next?”

   “Go with the flow?” I ask incredulously. “Oh really?”

   “Absolutely. I’m up for anything.” He knocks the bar with his knuckles to emphasize his point.

   An idea forms in my head.

   I really shouldn’t.

   I should not.

   It’s a terrible idea.

   “Anything?” I hear myself asking.

   He looks me right in the eye, daring me to do I don’t know what—definitely not what I have in mind—but it’s too late, and the idea is too good. I worked at a bar throughout college, and I’ve seen this more than once. Admittedly it usually happens at one in the morning, and admittedly it’s usually done by drunken coeds, but it’s the exact kind of thing that will shake Brody up, and that’s what he needs. The bartender wanders over and looks at me expectantly.

   “Another Stella?” he asks us.

   I grin at Brody. “You feeling patriotic there, buddy?”

   —

   Brody looks down at the shots in front of us, then to the small candle the bartender so helpfully provided, then back at me.

   “This is called a what?” he demands.

   “A Statue of Liberty shot!” I answer happily. “You never did this in college?”

   “No.” He shakes his head slowly. “Are you sure this is safe?”

   I laugh and lean closer to the shots of sambuca in front of us.

   “Not safe in the exact sense, no—” I start to explain.

   “What other sense is there?” His exasperation makes the last word come out louder than the rest.

   I choose to ignore the question.

   “So what you do is—” I hold the first two fingers of my left hand up in the air. “You dip these fingers into the sambuca, then you put them into the flame to light the liquor on fire. Then you hold them up, do the shot, then put the fire out in your mouth.” I finish happily.

   He eyes the bartender in annoyance.

   “This is totally against code.” He sounds as snooty as ever. “I can’t believe they’d allow this in here.”

   I ignore his tone.

   “Not against my code,” I tell him with a happy shrug.

   “Oh?” He takes a sip of his new beer. “And what code is that?”

   “Bro-code,” I say, just to be ridiculous.

   He chokes on his drink.

   I nudge the shot towards him with my finger, and he looks at me like I’ve lost my everloving mind. It’s probably better to just show him, because we can debate this for hours and it won’t move him any closer to actually doing it. Without a moment of warning I hold the shot up, toast to Sandra, dip my fingers in the liquor, and glide them through the flame. Brody gasps, but I quickly slam back the shot that tastes disgustingly like black licorice and put the burning fingers out in my mouth. All around us people I didn’t know were paying attention cheer. I laugh at the horrified look on Brody’s face.

   “That was ridiculous,” he scolds me.

   “That was a challenge,” I fire back. “You’re not too afraid, are you?”

   I raise my eyebrows in a dare.

   Brody stares at me, and I can’t tell if he’s amused or horrified. Maybe both? Either way I know he can’t believe he’s found himself in this situation. Nothing like his normal dates, I’m sure.

   “No, I’m not afraid. I’m just wondering—”

   “Ladies and gentlemen!” I announce loudly.

   Brody looks instantly mortified. I’m willing to bet the light in my eyes is something closer to maniacal glee.

   “Please gather round,” I continue loudly, “as my friend Br—er, Broseph will set out to do his first ever Statue of Liberty shot!”

   People have already been paying attention to us, so this only gives them official permission to watch. Several people scoot closer, and some of them shout out encouragement to him. If looks could kill, I’d be way dead right now. I laugh so hard my sides hurt.

   “Come on, Broseph,” I say loud enough for the small crowd to hear. “Do it for America!”

   People around us cheer.

   Brody looks totally chagrined, but he’s also fighting that smile again. Plus he’s an adult; if he doesn’t actually want to do this, all he has to say is no. He looks down at the shot and the candle, then at the people around us. At that exact moment “Born in the USA” starts up on the jukebox, which makes our assembled crowd go crazy. I don’t know who starts the chant—OK, so maybe it’s me—but before I know it, a whole group is chanting with me.

   Bro-seph! Bro-seph! Bro-seph!

   Both Brody and I are laughing now.

   “OK.” He chuckles.

   And then, with Bruce singing about the heartland, Brody plunges his fingers into the shot glass, taking an extra long time to be sure that they’re totally covered with liquor.

   He pulls them out, shakes his head like he can’t believe what he’s doing, then dips them into the candle flame. As soon as he lifts them out, I’m cheering along with everyone else. He pounds the shot and then quickly lifts his flaming fingers to his mouth. Out of nowhere a huge guy, who’s clearly had one too many, stumbles into the crowd around us. Before I can react and stop him or help or scream or something, the crowd bumps into Brody, whose fingers are traveling up to be extinguished but slam into his chest instead. Then like something out of a horror movie, the front of Brody’s blue shirt catches on fire like dry grass. I scream and jump up to help at the same time that Brody’s eyes grow three times larger and he lunges for a glass of water on the bar and douses himself with it. His sudden lunge throws me off balance, and I try to adjust before I topple, but my shoes are new and I’m unused to their height. My ankle wobbles at the same time that my top half careens forward, and my eye slams directly into Brody’s right elbow.

   “Good God!” Brody bellows as soon as my eye makes contact with his arm. He immediately turns to try to grab for me at the same time I grab my eye and try to regain my balance. Unfortunately for us, the ground is now wet with water, my shoes are unstable, and we’re both out of sorts. We go down like a pair of dominoes, and my head hits the dirty bar floor with a thunk.

   In the few seconds it takes for both of us to get our bearings, I can hear Brody cursing up a storm. By the time he’s leaning over me checking me for injuries, I’m laughing so hard I can barely breathe.

   Broseph is not amused.

   I bite my lip to try to get a hold of myself, but as soon as my eyes dart down to his beautiful blue shirt, I start laughing again. It’s soaking wet, covered with char marks, and has a good-sized hole in the shoulder where it burned through.

   “Are you OK?” I finally ask through my giggles.

   I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing he’s wishing the fall had finished me off. I smile bigger.

   “There’s a hole in my shirt, Landon—because I lit myself on fire. We’re lying on a floor that hasn’t been mopped since Nixon was in office. Also, I’m pretty sure I just gave my date a concussion. So no, OK isn’t really the state I’d describe myself in right now.”

   “Silver lining?” I peek at him through an eye that’s starting to swell shut.

   His eyes continue to scan me for injuries, and he doesn’t look like he’ll be out of this bad mood anytime soon.

   “And what would that be?” He scowls.

   I bite my lip again to keep from smiling.

   “Cedars-Sinai is within walking distance.”

   —

   I was totally joking about going to the hospital, but Brody refuses to listen. He’s positive that I have a concussion from when we fell and insists we go to the ER to have it checked out. It’s a full three hours before the doctor comes into the small room they put us in to give me the results. In that time Michael retrieves Brody’s wallet and delivers it here, not that having it back makes him any happier. He’s solicitous as ever, helping me around the hospital like I’m made of glass, but he’s spent most of the time brooding in the green plastic chair in the corner. Meanwhile I’m too busy being mortified about the hideous hospital gown they forced me to wear to try to console him. Maybe my terrible outfit is penance for suggesting he do the shot in the first place. Either way I know he’s grouchy and upset, and I know why. I’ve seen how protective Brody is of his sisters, and I’m sure the idea that he hurt me, even accidentally, is really upsetting to him.

   “Miss Brinkley,” the middle-aged doctor says as he enters the small room, “you’re all clear to go.”

   Brody sits up straighter in his chair.

   “Are you sure about that, doctor?” he asks quickly. “She hit her head pretty hard.”

   “I’m sure.” The doctor smiles at us both. “We ran every test we have. There’s no concussion. You’ll have quite the shiner, though.” I know from an earlier glance in the mirror that my eye is puffy and purple. Based on the look the doctor is giving it, I’m going to guess it’s gotten worse looking.

   Brody winces.

   “Take some ibuprofen for the pain, and uh, maybe stay away from flaming liquor for the foreseeable future,” the doctor tells us both. Brody stands up.

   “Are you sure there’s not—”

   “Mr. Ashton, I’ll offer again to look at you.” He eyes the burns on Brody’s shirt dubiously.

   Brody somehow manages to sound haughty while wearing a shirt with significant fire damage.

   “I’m fine.”

   The doctor smiles kindly. “And so is she.”

   He reaches out to shake both our hands. Then he’s gone, leaving us staring at each other. We’re quite the pair: me with a black eye and a goose egg on the side of my head, and Brody looking like a stunt man on break.

   Brody runs a hand through his hair. “Why don’t you get dressed and I’ll take you home?”

   He starts to leave, but my voice stops him at the door.

   “Oh no you don’t.” I shake my finger at him. “No way!”

   He looks utterly perplexed.

   “What?”

   Behold my fiercest glare.

   “There is no way we are ending the night like this, Brody—wait, what’s your middle name?”

   He shakes his head in bemusement. “Theodore,” he finally supplies.

   I stop to grin at him, because really, that middle name is adorable. But I quickly straighten myself up to finish my tirade properly.

   “Well, Brody Theodore Ashton, there is no way we’re ending the night like this!”

   “Landon,” he tries gently. “We’ve spent the last three hours in the ER. I think we have to call the time of death on this one. We’ll try again another night.”

   I jump up off the hospital bed and get in his face—at least, as much as I can without shoes on to make me taller and while holding the back of a hospital gown closed with one hand.

   “This is our date night, and regardless of whatever is happening to my left eye right now”—I jab a finger in the direction of the puffy monstrosity—“my hair is still fantastic! So I don’t care what time it is or what’s happened so far—we are going to go to dinner, Brody Ashton, so help me God!”

   He keeps staring at me in surprise and then opens his mouth to say something. I cut him off before he can.

   “Now go clean yourself up, because I am putting my dress back on and I expect you bright eyed and bushy tailed and ready to go in ten minutes or less!”

   He runs a hand back and forth through his hair, which admittedly only looks hotter the more messed up it becomes.

   “Landon, this night—this date—is a mess!” His tone becomes cajoling. “I think we should go home and get some sleep and—”

   “Brody.” I cut him off forcefully. Man, for all his maturity, he just doesn’t get it. “Life is messy. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t always go the way you plan. In fact”—I take a breath, realizing how much I need him to get this—“the same thing can be said about me. I’m not perfect, and I’m never going to go according to your plan.” He opens his mouth to argue. I hold up my free hand, effectively cutting him off.

   “I’m just telling you so you can adjust your expectations. You think this night is a bust”—I feel the smile pulling at my mouth—“and I think it’ll make for one of the best stories I’ll ever have. You left your wallet, we spent most of our night in traffic, and, well, the Selah thing sucked. And yes—OK—you lit yourself on fire, and I have a black eye. Our date was messy and imperfect but”—I look away, suddenly feeling shy under his intense gaze—“but I’d rather be on a sucky date with you than a fabulous date with anybody else.”

   I keep staring at the dreary hospital room rather than back over at him. It was a pretty swoony admission to make, and I’m sure I’m as red as a tomato.

   His fingers touch my chin and turn me to look up at him. Blue eyes scan my face like he’s trying to figure something out. His thumb slides up to rub at the blush that’s staining my cheeks.

   “You are the sweetest—” His words are cut off by his lips on mine.

   I push up on my tiptoes to kiss him back, and the hospital gown slides from the death grip I have on it. It comes loose for a few seconds before I grab it closed again. I look down at the hideous thing in dismay.

   “Can I just—”

   “Absolutely.” He smiles. “Are you OK with making your way downstairs alone? It’ll take me a minute to get the car, but I can meet you out front so you don’t have to walk.”

   When I nod, he kisses me sweetly on the forehead before turning and leaving the room.

   As soon as the door closes behind him, I have to sit down on the bed for a minute to steady my nerves. Lord, that man makes me flustered.

   —

   I walk out to the front of the hospital with my arms full of the contraband I nabbed from the vending machine on the way down. Brody is already walking around the front of the car, and he finally ditched the burned Armani. Now he’s clad in his white undershirt and his slacks. Gonna be honest, a tight white T-shirt against his muscles is almost better than the fancy dress shirt. He hurries over to me.

   “I found this in the backseat.” He holds the material out to me. “Are you cold?”

   The summer night is cool, but even if it had been a hundred degrees, I wouldn’t have missed the chance to wear his faded red hoodie. He helps me put it on. When he comes around in front of me and starts to slowly roll up each sleeve, I stop breathing for a second. Maybe other people would hate this mother-hen thing he’s got going on, but I’m not one of them. The way his big hands gently fold the material end over end strikes me as shockingly sexy. I use the time it takes to walk over to the car and let him help me inside to catch my breath.

   By the time he gets into the car, my heart has mostly returned to a normal tempo. With a dramatic flourish, I hand him one of the items from my stash. He stares down at the granola bar in confusion.

   “What is this?”

   “Chewy chocolate chunk.”

   That earns me a sardonic look from the driver’s seat. “Yes, but what’s it for?”

   I tear open a package of peanut butter crackers before answering.

   “I have one more quick stop before our dinner, and this is a snack to hold us over.”

   Brody looks from me to the monitor on the dash, either to confirm or emphasize the fact that it’s after midnight, but he wisely says nothing to rebuff my idea. Look at that! It took all night and possible third-degree burns to his left arm, but he’s finally going with the flow.

   I grin and point the way out of the parking lot.

   —

   “I don’t understand,” Brody says, surveying the empty street around us.

   I hook my arm through his and drag him towards the nearest window display, which is lit up like the top of the Empire State Building.

   “It’s one of my favorite things to do in LA.” I peer closer at a diamond in the window that’s roughly the size of a table grape.

   “Walking around Rodeo Drive,” he asks slowly, “in the middle of the night?”

   I nod and smile up at him.

   As I walk to the next window, I push the sleeves of his way-too-big-for-me sweatshirt up higher. He dutifully follows along.

   The diamond necklace in this display is a filigree of metalwork that looks like something a fairy queen might wear. Miko would love it. I’ll have to bring her back here before they change the design.

   I turn back to spy on Brody lit up against the backdrop of Beverly Hills in all its glory. You wouldn’t know it unless you happened upon it late at night, but they keep Rodeo Drive lit up like a Christmas tree twenty-four hours a day. Maybe it’s because the street is such an icon or maybe it’s for security purposes, but even at one in the morning, it’s glowing.

   “When I first moved to town, I wanted to come here so badly.” I grin at him as he moves closer. “But it’s kind of intimidating to walk around this street if you can’t actually afford anything in any of these stores. Do you know what I mean?”

   He can’t even form an answer before I’m waving it away. It’s a silly thing to say to someone who absolutely shops at these stores—who grew up just down the street.

   “Oh shoot. No, I guess you don’t know what I mean. But trust me, it’s intimidating.”

   He nods and reaches out to lace his fingers with mine. I use the connection to pull him to the next window.

   “Miko and I like to come here when we wrap an event. It’s usually around this time, and we’re too wired to sleep.”

   “And you just . . . walk around?”

   I laugh at his obvious confusion.

   “Most of the time we bring snacks.”

   He shrugs helplessly.

   “OK.”

   “Come on, pal.” I use my hold on his hand to turn him back in the other direction. The whole of Rodeo Drive is laid out before us in all its perfectly manicured, architecturally beautiful glory. As a little girl who wanted to move to LA her whole life, I can’t help but feel giddy when I look at it, even after seeing it so many times. That little girl’s dreams are what make my voice nearly tremble with excitement when I tell him, “You have to admit there’s a special kind of magic to this. It’s like something out of a movie or a book or—I don’t know, your very best dream.” I’m nearly breathless as I look out over the city street.

   “You’re right.” His voice is nearly a whisper.

   I turn to look at him, happy that he understands what I’m saying, but he isn’t looking at the street or the architecture.

   He’s looking right at me. His voice comes out gruff.

   “There is a special kind of magic to this.”

   He pulls gently on my hand so we’re facing each other, and his fingers slide up to play with the end of my hair again. He just stands there watching his fingers wrap around the strands like it’s the most fascinating thing he’s ever seen. When his eyes find mine again, I stop breathing completely.

   “Something out of my very best dream,” he says just as quietly.

   But I hear him. Every single part of me hears him. My heart, the tingly spot on my neck, the tips of my fingers, my lips, the back of my knees—every single part of me hears him say that, so every single part is already heightened when he slides his hand up to cradle my face and touches his mouth to mine.

   We’ve kissed before.

   Gentle kisses, rough and urgent kisses, kisses that are intense, kisses that are playful, kisses that seem to last a minute but really steal parts of an hour. We’ve had them all. But this kiss is something more. The first brush of his lips feels like a question. The tip of my tongue against his is the answer. And as the intensity increases along with the emotion behind it, I feel the comfort of this kiss until my chest aches with new awareness of what this man is becoming to me. I slide my hands up around his neck and push up on tiptoes to get closer.

   Which is the exact moment my stomach growls loud enough to startle us both.

   Kill. Me.

   Brody is already chuckling when he pulls back to look at me. I’m eight kinds of mortified, but the joy lighting up his eyes is enough to make my embarrassment worth it.

   “Dinner time?” he asks with a grin.

   “Absolutely.” I smile back. “What kind of food sounds good?”

   His hand slides down my arm until he reaches my fingers. “I know a great pancake place.”

   I laugh at the suggestion as he pulls me towards his car.

   “Pancakes?” I tease. “Is that gonna be our thing?”

   “Well”—he smiles and opens the car door for me—“I know how you love a theme.”

   I’m still laughing when he closes it behind me.

   Part II: Brody

   Landon is still giggling when I close the door on her side and walk around the car to get in. I’m fairly certain I’m grinning like a child, but I passed the point of caring a while ago. It’s not my normal MO—none of this is. In fact, if you told me six months ago that I’d be on a date in an undershirt because I’d burned a three-hundred-dollar button-down doing a flaming shot of cheap flavored liqueur, I would have happily laughed in your face. But then, six months ago, I’d never seen Landon before.

   I climb in, put the car into drive, and head towards Swingers. It’s a bit of an institution in LA, and the food is actually great, even if I’ve only ever eaten it when I was drunk in college or soaking up a hangover the next day. A middle of the night trip to a diner isn’t what I had in mind for our date, though. I’ll have to try again to take her somewhere special. There’s an incredible restaurant down in Cabo, and she said she’s never been out the country—though it’s definitely too soon for weekend getaways. Not for other women I’ve dated, but I am constantly reminding myself to move slowly with her. Moving slowly isn’t my MO either. This whole process is an exquisite kind of torture.

   Landon is drumming her fingers idly on the armrest between us. Each one is tipped by the same bright-pink polish she had on the very first time I saw her. She’d be shocked if she knew I notice that pink polish—hell, I’m shocked that I notice it. But that’s how it’s been since the very first time I saw her. She was there, I saw her, and then I couldn’t not see her. The very first time—that very first day—she was just a girl in an elevator. But there’s something about Landon: her energy, her enthusiasm for life, her innocence. Even her optimism, which should repel me, somehow manages to pull me in tighter. As jaded and cynical as I am, as much as I told myself I’d never let myself feel this way about someone again, I can’t help it. I’ve been enthralled from the beginning.

   She was a disaster that day. Way too overdressed for the office, slowly choking to death on a muffin, too prideful to ask for help. I chuckle at the memory and reach for her dancing fingers. My sweatshirt is entirely too big for her, and she has to shake her hand loose of the material before she can entwine her fingers with mine. I’m not going to lie—I fucking love that she’s wearing something of mine. If I thought she was adorable before—with her gigantic hair and the fact that she’s still reapplying lip gloss even though she’s got a black eye—the sight of her in my sweatshirt just proves I don’t know anything.

   I didn’t know that I’d become so aware of her so quickly. I didn’t know that her bright-eyed innocence wouldn’t annoy me at all—that it would actually become a balm to scars I thought I’d buried long ago. I had no idea how refreshing it would be to date someone so opposite me in so many ways. How fun it would be to choose the unexpected, to find joy in something as simple as a well-lit street in the middle of the night. That’s the thing about Landon: she sees things in a different way, and when I’m with her, I see them that way too.

   I help her out of the car when we get to the restaurant. As soon as her feet touch the ground, she slides her arm through mine and leans into me. I have to stop myself, like always, from throwing her over my shoulder and driving us right back to my house. Move slowly—that’s my new MO. She grins up at me, and even in the streetlight I can make out the freckles that cover her nose.

   Oh yeah, moving slowly is exquisite torture. But I know deep in my gut, in a place I thought someone else had destroyed, that she’s the one I want. So I’ll do anything, including torture myself, to move at her pace and to make sure she understands that.

   Because this girl—she’s it for me. She is the answer to a question I didn’t know I had. And so I’ll go as slowly as she needs me to. I’ll eat breakfast in the middle of the night and hang out in dive bars and, apparently, do stupid crap like light myself on fire, if it means I can be the answer for her too.

   A waitress hands us menus as we sit down and takes our drink order before hurrying away. Landon reads through it, as happily as if she were at the nicest restaurant in town. Have I ever met someone this joyful? No. I absolutely have not. I feel a deep need to make sure she never loses that.

   “What are you going to have?” I ask, reaching out to play with her pink fingers again. I should have better restraint, but it’s been a long night and I’m giving in to the urge to touch her constantly.

   “Um . . .” Her big blue eyes smile at me over the top of the menu. “I think I’m going to go with the waffles.”

   “Rebel,” I say with a wink.

   She puts the menu down on the table.

   “Oh, you have no idea.” She winks back. “I’m an unknown variable.”

   She smiles at me and takes her cup of coffee from the waitress who’s just appeared at our table. I watch as she adds way too much sugar. I watch as she stirs the coffee once around and then counterclockwise three more times before taking a long sip.

   She grins up at me. “Waffles, St. Nick’s, my super-sweet dance moves—I make all sorts of rebellious decisions, Brody Ashton. I’ll change up everything.”

   I can’t stop staring at her, with her black eye and golden hair and that irrepressible grin.

   All I can think is, God, I hope so.

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