“You need me to do what?”
Steve’s sigh was loud enough through the speaker phone that it pulled my attention away from my computer screen, which was pretty impressive. “Brennon, I need you to come by the restaurant for a couple of hours,” he said. Slowly, as if he was afraid I’d lost the ability to hear properly.
A quick glance at my watch told me it was almost seven, which would explain why my stomach was growling, but hanging out at my best friend’s restaurant wasn’t necessarily going to solve that problem for me unless he was actually planning on cooking something. “But I thought you were closed tonight.”
The Globe was always closed on Thursdays, to give him the chance to prepare for the busy weekends. He wasn’t changing things up on me, was he? I shuddered at the thought. The last thing I needed was Steve Evans doing something unexpected.
“We are closed,” he replied.
“I’m trying something new tonight, and it’s up to you to make sure I don’t end up injured.”
Well that was intriguing. Steve was mostly blind, but he was as stubborn as they came and rarely asked for help. Most of the time he didn’t need it anyway, but the fact that he was willingly admitting his shortcomings meant he really did need my help. “Where is Lissa tonight?” I asked. Wouldn’t his wife have been a better option for something like this?
Steve chuckled. “She doesn’t approve.”
“Steve, are you doing something dangerous?”
“That all depends on you, my friend. See you in twenty.” He hung up before I could make a better argument, leaving me in an uncomfortable silence.
I had never minded silence before, but the last month had left me in a perpetual stillness that served as a blank canvas for my thoughts.
Most of which turned into songs.
“Do not start singing,” I warned myself then frowned at my screen. I had plenty of work to get done, but it wasn’t like I could just leave Steve hanging. If Lissa didn’t like what he was doing—why would she let him do it, first of all?—then it was probably a good idea for me to go over there.
Or maybe I could call Matthew… Steve’s cousin-in-law saw my best friend more than I did lately, and it wasn't like he had much work to do. He and his wife ran a coffee shop, but I was pretty sure Indie did all the work. Anyway, they closed late in the afternoon, so Matthew probably had plenty of time to go check on Steve.
“Who am I kidding?” I muttered. “Matthew’s probably right in the middle of it with him.” The two of them had become friends almost the moment they met, and Matthew was literally incapable of being serious. He had turned Steve into even more of a reckless buffoon than he’d been before he lost his sight.
“You’re talking to yourself, Brennon,” came a voice through my open door.
I tensed. “Jake?”
He poked his head in a moment later and replied, “Yeah?”
“What are you doing here?” It was nearly seven, for crying out loud, and he had gotten here just after I did this morning. AKA ridiculously early. I thought he’d already gone home.
Grinning, he shrugged and said, “Being the best assistant ever. I was just about to grab you some dinner. Salad or steak?” He only waited half a second before he decided, “Steak it is,” and turned to go back to his desk.
“Wait!” I called and regretted it because now I couldn’t change my mind. I should have just taken a second to think before I opened my mouth.
I knew better than this.
“I’m actually heading to The Globe,” I said, cringing. I desperately hoped Steve was trying out a new dish and would need me to taste test things, or I was going to regret making this decision to go to his restaurant. My stomach would regret it.
The grin Jake gave me had me a little worried, since it seemed like he knew something I didn’t, but he didn’t feel the need to explain himself. “Good idea,” he said. “In that case, I’ll head out!”
“You know you don’t have to be here whenever I am,” I said. Seriously, he had been here more than twelve hours. It was one thing for me to work this much—that was just what I did—but it was another for my assistant to be so dedicated when he probably spent half his day searching the city for the best chicken parmesan to order me for lunch. (It was from The Globe, no question.)
“I know,” he replied.
Do you? I wondered.
“Unless you need anything else from me, I’ll see you tomorrow!” He waited just a moment, in case I changed my mind, and then he was gone.
As was my chance to get a steak just right. I didn’t actually know what Jake told the chef at Pico’s, but it only ever came out perfect when Jake was the one ordering it. I knew that one from experience.
“Guess I’m helping Steve,” I grumbled, though I wasn’t actually mad about it. Steve’s restaurant was doing so well that I barely got to see him as it was, and weekly dinners with his family just didn’t cut it. So even though I still had plenty to do here at the office, I gathered up my keys and switched off my computer screen, and then I made my way through the empty office to the parking garage.
By the time I pulled up outside The Globe, my stomach was trying to eat itself, and I was on the verge of getting grumpy. Jake didn’t usually let me go this long without food—he had seen me hangry one too many times—which meant he somehow knew I would be coming here tonight. I just wasn’t sure how concerned I needed to be about that fact.
I figured the door would be locked, since the restaurant was closed, but I tried it anyway out of reflex. When it opened without resistance, I paused in surprise. Even more concerning was the chatter of voices inside. Steve was rarely quiet when he was in his kitchen, but this wasn’t just one guy singing to fill the silence.
This was dozens of people.
“Steve, what have you gotten me into?” I muttered and warily crossed the lobby to step into the main seating area.
I stopped dead. Maybe I didn’t get out much, but it seemed a little strange that each table would only have two seats. And those two seats were filled with one man and one woman. My eyes locked on a large banner on the left wall, and though I wanted to be angry, mostly I just felt sick to my stomach as I stared at the printed words:
“Nope,” I said out loud and turned to head right back to my car.
“Where are you going?” Steve said, appearing out of nowhere and blocking the exit. The man may not have been able to see all that well, but if his smirk was to be believed, he knew exactly what my reaction had been. “I thought you were going to help me out.”
“You’re trying to set me up,” I replied. And while I hated the fact that my best friend thought he knew better than me, I was honestly surprised it had taken him this long to even try. He had been blissfully married for a whole month now, and I was pretty sure a married man’s first goal was to get his friends married too.
Steve tried hard not to grin. He failed. “Set you up?” he said. “Nah. That involves choosing someone for you. You get to do the fun part.” He clapped me on the back and nearly knocked me over.
“I thought you said you needed me to keep you from getting injured.”
“I do. I’m waiting for you to punch me in the face for this.”
I wanted to. And if I was any sort of fighter, I would. But the woman at the nearest table was not-so-subtly watching me out of the corner of her eye, and punching the host would make her think something was wrong with me.
Why would you care about that?
Because she was pretty, and her blonde curls gave her a softness that reminded me of--
Whoa now. Had I really just been about to compare her to Steve’s wife? Something was seriously wrong with me, and not just because the song “Pretty Woman” had just started playing in my head. I had dated Lissa for less than a week before she and Steve fell for each other, and it wasn’t like I had ever actually loved her.
Love. I didn’t believe in love.
That lie was getting harder and harder to believe.
“So are you going to stand here all night, or are you going to give this a chance?” Steve asked, putting a hand on my shoulder as if to tell me I didn’t actually have a choice.
At least Lissa hadn’t thought this was a good idea. It was nice to know she was on my side.
Speak of the devil, I thought as my phone buzzed with a text from Lissa herself.
You don’t have to stay, she said. I can pick him up when it’s over.
She’d just given me an easy out, but it shot through me like a challenge. Ever since she and Steve started dating a year and a half ago, Lissa had decided she understood me, and she had acted accordingly. She’d been wrong, of course, but at least I had a good idea of how I should act when around her. But unless she had somehow discovered how hard it was for me to back down from a challenge—I hoped she hadn’t—she really thought I didn’t have the guts to stick around for some speed dating.
I knew this was a monumentally bad idea, but I had to prove I wasn’t a total loss. I could spend a night socializing with strange women.
I groaned. “Where do I need to sit?” I asked, trying not to sound like there was nothing in the world I wanted less. Steve was still my best friend, after all, and I didn’t want him to think I wasn't grateful that he was thinking of me. I highly doubted he tricked me into coming to this because he wanted to torture me.
At least it wasn’t karaoke. He’d tried that once in college, and it hadn’t ended well for either of us. He had attempted pulling me up on stage, and I’d fought until we both ended up falling into a bartender with a tray full of drinks.
“I knew you’d come around, man,” Steve replied, and he seemed absolutely thrilled that I had agreed. “There should be an open seat for you somewhere…” He glanced around, but it wasn’t like he could see anything beyond a few inches, and even then, his vision was questionable.
I quickly searched the room then suppressed another groan. The only empty seat I could see was across from a woman who looked more plastic than human. She was probably nice, but if I had any chance of enjoying myself tonight, I would have to end up across from someone who looked a little more real, like the girl at the next table over who wore hardly any makeup at all.
“I’ll find it,” I told Steve before he started trying to navigate the field of tables. “Where do you need to be?”
He grinned, and I noticed several women in the audience eyeing him with interest. “I’m on snack duty,” he said. Oblivious.
Thank goodness. Taking him by the elbow, I slowly directed him toward the kitchen before he bumped into too many people on the way. “You might want to flash your wedding ring before Lissa has a reason to be jealous,” I muttered.
Steve had always been popular, since he had that devil-may-care attitude that had filled his life with daring stunts and adrenaline-pumping activities. Plus, he was obnoxiously handsome, and that may have played a large part in why I befriended him so quickly our freshman year at Stanford. It was easy to hide in the background when there was a guy like Steve Evans to take the spotlight.
Laughing, he pushed his left hand though his curly hair and looked so natural doing it that I wanted to smack him. He was only making things worse. “Lissa jealous?” he asked. “Come on.” But he seemed inordinately pleased by the idea and looked over the crowd, as if he could actually see the longing glances coming his way. He had only been married for a month, and he was still in the honeymoon phase. Honestly, I was pretty sure he would never leave it.
As soon as I got him to the kitchen, he settled right in, quickly tying an apron around his waist and gathering up the supplies he would need. For a blind guy, he was right at home in this kitchen, and I was so glad he had found a way to get back to his bright self. For a while, he had been losing his battle with the darkness that came after his accident.
Thank goodness for Lissa. Without her, I probably would have lost my best friend.
But now that Steve was all situated, it was my turn, and it took a whole lot more effort than it should have to walk the little distance to that last seat and sit down. Most of my energy just went to putting on a smile instead of a grimace.
My first table partner looked up from her phone when I sat, and her eyes swept over me. It seemed she liked what she saw, because her phone disappeared into her purse. “Hi,” she said and held out a manicured hand. How did women even get anything done with nails like that? “I’m Cherry.” She had a deep voice, low and sultry, and it sent a chill down my back.
“Brennon,” I said and wondered how long I would have to sit here before we changed tables. What were the rules of tonight’s speed dating, anyway? Had the event even started?
“What do you do for work, Brennon?” Cherry asked.
Was Steve going to play host, or had he hired someone else to do that part? Everyone else in the room was either chatting with their table partner or glued to their phones.
“I’m a stockbroker,” I said. “You?”
“I’m in between gigs,” she replied with a broad smile. Actress? “Stockbroker, huh? That must be exciting.”
How long had some of these people been sitting here? “If you think spreadsheets are exciting, sure.”
“You must make good money doing that.”
I stopped looking out over the room and fixed my gaze on Cherry. She didn’t necessarily sound greedy, but most people didn’t. And yet I knew she was here hoping to meet a rich man who could pay her way through whatever “occupation” she pretended to have. It must have been in the way she said it.
Jokes on you, I wanted to tell her. I may be well enough off, but I’m not looking for a trophy wife.
Luckily for me, I had dealt with enough of the rich and powerful that I knew exactly how to act like one of them. “You must be a model,” I said and leaned one elbow on the table, trying to look casual and relaxed. That part wasn’t exactly easy when I had a whole lot of unplanned conversation ahead of me, but I did my best.
Cherry’s smile somehow grew wider. “How did you know? Have you seen one of my ads?”
Bus stop bench ad for hemorrhoid cream? But that was being unfair. “You do remind me of something,” I replied with a smile. Like the dress-up dolls I had never actually seen up close because I was an only child and Molly didn’t like dolls.
My smile disappeared.
Now why did she have to go and pop into my head like that? I’d been doing so well.
Don’t think about your old friend, Brennon. You know that.
Thank the ever-blessed heavens for Steve, who pounded a mallet on a gong and ended the conversation before I made a fool of myself. “It’s about that time!” he shouted, doing his best to look like he was actually seeing anything out in the restaurant. “My staff will be bringing around some appetizers pretty soon, but until then, you know the drill. You’ll have two minutes to talk before I ring the gong, and then you gentlemen will move on to the next number. Any questions?”
A hand lifted somewhere in the middle, but either Steve couldn’t see it, or he ignored it and kept talking.
“I honestly don’t care what you talk about as long as both of you get some words in. And please, no making out inside the restaurant. This is a classy place, and I’d like to keep it that way. Move along!” He slammed the mallet against the gong again, and all of the men rose to move to the next table.
Some of them, I noticed, did so reluctantly, while others couldn’t wait to talk to someone else. I was of the latter group and gave Cherry a half-hearted smile before moving over to Table #14.
“I don’t want to waste any time,” my new partner said before I’d even settled in my chair. “I’m Judy. I design floral arrangements. I have two dogs and a parakeet, and I don’t like beans because they look weird. If I could go anywhere in the world I would stay right here because San Francisco is the best place I’ve ever seen and there’s nothing quite as nice as home.”
I blinked, waited a second to make sure she was done, since there had been no change in speech pattern outside of her suddenly going silent and staring at me, and then I took a deep breath. So she was a talker? Would she rather I be a talker like her, or would she rather dominate the conversation?
“I’m Brennon,” I said.
“Have you ever done something like this, Brennon? I’m totally nervous, and it’s been a while since I last dated so I’m afraid I’m going to make a total fool of myself or maybe even end up without connecting with anyone at all. Wouldn’t that be awful? I think I…”
Was it rude of me to tune her out? Probably not. She was happier talking to herself anyway. Didn’t she understand the power of a good conversation? AKA taking a moment to listen?
Steve’s gong came none too soon, and as I moved to my next table, I tried to see how close he was to getting food out. I was starving, and that wasn’t making it any easier to be personable. He was flying around the kitchen in a cloud of steam, shouting things to his two cooks over the chatter that had already started up again, and I had no idea how he was timing our conversations and cooking whatever it was that smelled amazing.
I glanced at my watch as I settled in my new seat, curious.
After I introduced myself to my new partner, Heather, we fell into an uncomfortable silence. There was nothing particularly striking about her—brown hair to her shoulders, almond eyes, a sweet smile—and I couldn’t figure out why someone like her would come to something like this if she wasn’t planning to start up a conversation.
“So Heather,” I said and glanced down at my watch. Only thirty seconds gone. “How long have you lived in San Francisco?”
She shrugged, only keeping eye contact with me for a second at a time. She was trying, at least, but I was pretty sure she was more uncomfortable than me. That was saying something. “Just a few months,” she said.
“And before that?”
Another shrug. “South Dakota.”
Did you live in the middle of nowhere and never learn how to talk to people? But that was rude, and I was not someone who could judge a person based on the way they interacted with other people. I was doing okay, so far, but that was only because I was concentrating hard. If anything distracted me, like that thought about Molly, I was--
I cursed under my breath. I should have seen that trap I just laid for myself, but I had stepped right into this pit because I wasn’t looking where I was going. Thinking about Molly twice in one night? Brennon, you’re an embarrassment. Get a hold of yourself.
“I’m sorry,” Heather muttered, pulling my attention back to her. “I’m so bad at these things. But my friend made me come.” She glanced at a woman a few tables away, who seemed to have realized how miserable her friend was because she sent a commiserating smile our way.
I know the feeling, Heather. At least her friend felt a bit guilty. When I glanced over at Steve, he was whistling cheerily to himself. I glanced at my watch—three minutes. Someone forgot he was supposed to be timing these things, and I sent a glare toward the kitchen. He probably thought he was so clever and picked out someone he thought I would get along with, giving me two terrible choices before I got to this one.
Nice try, Steve. Heather was sweet enough, but if we tried to go on a date, the pair of us would probably be bored out of our minds. I knew I would be, and this was coming from a guy who watched the stock market fluctuate all day. No, I needed someone I could talk to for hours on end.
Then I could stop talking to myself. That would certainly make my assistant happy.
Steve must have sensed my growing irritation with him, because he grabbed his mallet and signaled for the men to rotate.
Was he ever going to bring me some food?
My next partner was big into sports and promptly shut down when I told her I didn’t have a favorite football team.
The woman after that tried to convince me I needed to put on some muscle weight. She wasn’t wrong, but then I would have to get a whole new wardrobe. And I really liked my suits.
I arrived at the next table to a heavenly sight: the best bruschetta I had ever seen. It was terribly rude of me, and I would absolutely regret it later when I revisited tonight in my dreams, but I stuffed a whole piece into my mouth and barely suppressed a moan of happiness because I hadn’t eaten since lunch. My stomach rumbled as it attacked the tomatoes and bread, and then my face flushed with heat when I realized my new table partner had just watched me devour an appetizer like I had been stranded on a deserted island for weeks.
And she didn’t seem to care.
“I’ve always said this place has the best food in the state,” she said with a smile. “I’m glad someone agrees with me.”
It was the woman I had noticed at the beginning, the blonde one with the hair like Lissa’s. Only this woman’s hair was curlier, and as soon as that thought struck me, I knew I was in trouble.
Her hair was just like Molly’s.
Dagnabit, Brennon. Again?
“I’m Katie,” she said and held out her hand to me.
I was about to return the handshake when I realized I had garlic sauce on my hand. Coughing—and wishing I had never shown up to this stupid event—I wiped my fingers clean on a napkin and took hold of her hand. “Brennon,” I said. “Sorry for, uh…”
I couldn’t get a read on her. The others had been easy to figure out, but Katie felt just a little too normal. Familiar. It didn’t help that her eyes were a bright shade of brown, almost hazel. A bit close to Molly for comfort.
What would a woman like her want from a guy like me?
“Don’t be sorry,” she said, and I was pretty sure she meant it as she looked me over. “I’m sure the chef would appreciate knowing someone likes his food that much. Do you want mine?”
Yes. “No, you should have it.” But if you don’t eat it in the next thirty seconds, it’ll be gone.
“I’m actually allergic to tomatoes.”
I refused to acknowledge the thought that tried to creep up. It didn’t matter that someone else I knew was also allergic to tomatoes. It wasn’t like she was here to shove them all onto my plate so she didn’t have to look at them. “If you want, I could, uh…” I cleared my throat. “I could go ask the chef to make you something else so you don’t have to go hungry.” Not that bruschetta is much of a meal to begin with.
Katie waved my offer away, but she did seem pleased by it. “I wouldn’t want to bother him.”
“Oh, he loves to cook. He’d take it as a personal challenge to make you something even better than this.” I said that last part right before stuffing the other bruschetta into my mouth. She’d already seen me do it once, so what could it hurt?
Letting out a gasp, Katie turned to the kitchen as if realizing she was talking to someone totally famous. “I wondered if maybe you knew him,” she said, practically in awe. “So how close are you?”
He’s married, Katie. Don’t even try it. “I’ve known him for years,” I said. Almost half my life, to be exact. “He’s the only reason I’m here tonight. If I had known this was speed dating, I wouldn’t have come.” Well that’s a terrible thing to say to the one person who is tolerable at this thing.
“You don’t think speed dating can be useful?” Katie asked, and she deflated a bit.
Had I really made enough of an impression on her for her to be disappointed? Outside of knowing Steve, she knew nothing about me, and I planned to keep it that way. Since when did I become such a Scrooge? Could a person be considered a Scrooge outside of something Christmas-related? I didn’t get the chance to ask Katie, because someone else answered her question for me.
“Not when you’re Brennon Ashworth.”
I turned, alarmed to find Matthew Davenport sitting backwards in a lone chair near the doors to the lobby and leaning on the back of it. Just how long had Steve’s cousin-in-law been watching me?
“Sorry?” said Katie, though she examined Matthew with interest.
He’s also married, I should have said. And expecting a baby. Instead, I just stared at Matthew and wondered why he would be sitting there as if my conversation was prime entertainment.
Matthew chuckled. “You know, Brennon,” he said without acknowledging Katie’s question, “I’m a little disappointed in you. I bet Steve a hundred bucks you wouldn’t last five minutes out here. Now I’m flat broke, thanks to you.” Not likely, since the Davenports were one of the wealthiest families in California.
Of course Matthew knew about this whole scheme. I’d been right, and he was smack dab in the middle of Steve’s nonsense, as always. If there was one thing I could count on when it came to Matthew Davenport, he had no idea how to be serious, which meant he was probably a terrible influence on my friend.
“How long have you been watching?” I asked through gritted teeth.
He leaned his chin on his arms, laughter in his eyes. “Pretty much all night,” he replied. “Katie, you can do better than this guy, no matter how sharply dressed he is. I’ve never actually seen him wear anything other than a suit, and that’s just sad.”
How sweet of you to say. I bit back my response, just in case it came out as the lyrics to a ZZ Top song since that had started playing in my head, and I tried to think back on what I might have done or said to this man to make him think he needed to insult me. Granted, his insult was technically almost a compliment, as the Davenports were far too perfect a family to actually be mean. But still. I may not have had much hope for actually connecting to someone, but couldn’t he have done this when I was talking to Heather? I was sure he would have loved to fill that silence, since he was so enamored by the sound of his own voice.
The gong rang out through the restaurant, but I wasn’t feeling particularly social anymore. “You’re giving Steve a ride home, right?” I asked Matthew as I got to my feet.
He had the nerve to look insulted. “Of course. What kind of friend do you think I am?”
He did not want me to answer that question. “Katie,” I said, “it was nice to meet you.”
She smiled, and she looked so much like Lissa that it made my stomach twist in my gut. No, she looked like Molly. Uh oh. “You too, Brennon,” she said. “Do you want to—”
“Good luck tonight. I hope you find someone.” And I rushed from the restaurant before Steve or Matthew could try to call me back.