Read Chapters 1-3 of
A Borrowed Boyfriend
Is that guy checking me out?
I feel a prickle of self-consciousness that has everything to do with the fact that I’m wearing an old Star Wars T-shirt I sleep in more often than I should admit, including last night, and that I ignored Andy’s not-so-subtle advice to put on some makeup for once. Yeah, no, he’s definitely not interested in me. He’s gorgeous enough to make angels weep. Which means he’s staring for the same reason everyone stares at me lately.
“Nice shirt,” Angel Guy says with a nod.
“Um. Thanks,” I reply, gritting my teeth against what I know is coming next. I should probably just walk away, but I really need that drink.
I send a desperate glance at the bartender, who’s already passed me over twice for women who, unlike me, probably spent more than two minutes getting ready. Lo and behold, the bartender notices me. Our gazes meet for an instant. His eyes are the color of the whiskey I’d like to drink. I feel the warmth of his gaze down to my toes.
I guess I must really want that drink. The bartender takes a step toward me, which is a promising development.
“It’s you, isn’t it? Sinclair Jones’s sister,” Angel Guy says, pulling my attention away. “You look different without”—he motions around his head as if to suggest the hours I’d spent being primped and polished on the morning of my wedding. Or, I should say, the morning of what was supposed to be my wedding. “Well, you know, you look different now, but you’re the woman from that meme. Can I buy you a drink?”
“Nope. No can do.” I can feel the bartender watching me, taking in the situation, and I flush with embarrassment. “You understand. I have important Force-related business.” I give him the Star Wars hand signal, then turn and start walking away before he can object . . . or start snapping pictures. Let’s be honest, I know what he really wants—a selfie with the woman who became a meme.
God save me from this lookie-loo. I’ve had more than enough embarrassment to last three lifetimes, thank you very much. I don’t need to add any more line items to that list.
I hear a soft laugh behind me, and someone asks, “Isn’t that the Vulcan hand gesture from Star Trek?”
Whatever. It’s my brother’s shirt. Drew’s a bit of a nerd, obsessed with his space operas. I love him, but he can keep his intergalactic dramas to himself. Why am I wearing his shirt? Because we live together, and he skipped doing his laundry for several weeks in a row. I finally broke down and did it myself, but in retaliation I stole his most comfortable shirt.
When I slide into the booth across from my friends, Andy and Grace, they cut off their conversation so quickly it’s obvious they’ve been talking about me.
Andy eyes my empty hands, and I avoid the urge to cover my bare ring finger. It’s the lack of a drink she cares about.
“I thought the point of getting a drink was to get a drink,” she says.
“I changed my mind,” I say. “Maybe I’ll do a sober January thing.”
Grace gives me a dubious look, and fine, she has a point. If ever there were a January to not be sober, it’s this one.
“Or not,” I amend. “Anyway, aren’t we here to talk about the book? You dragged me out tonight on the pretext of having a book club meeting.”
“Did you read the book?” Andy asks.
“No,” I admit.
Andy shoots a quizzical look at Grace, who develops a sudden interest in the scratched-up tabletop in front of her. A sudden flash of light reflects off her glasses, and I flinch, but then I realize it’s a reflection of whatever’s on the TV across from her, not a camera.
“Come on,” Andy says. “Marnie gets a pass, but you had a whole month. I read Outlander when you asked us to. That was a very long book.”
“There was a lot of sex in it,” Grace says with a twinkle in her eyes. “Hot Scottish Guy sex. Admit you enjoyed it. We all did.”
“Anyway,” Grace says, “the book is immaterial—”
“Says the person who didn’t pick it,” Andy mutters, sweeping her long black curls over her shoulder.
I’d take part in the conversation, except I honestly don’t remember what we were supposed to read. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading . . . I’m just not in the right headspace. Every time a guy in a book does something stupid, I want to hit him over the head with a rolled-up newspaper. Every time a woman trusts someone she shouldn’t, I want to . . . well, honestly the newspaper approach still sounds pretty good. It makes reading stressful.
“We could talk about Outlander,” I suggest. “I just rewatched the first episode.”
Grace gives Andy a knowing look.
“These looks you’re giving each other . . . do they have anything to do with whatever you were talking about when I went up to the bar?” I ask.
It does not soothe me when Grace slides her glass of white wine across the table to me, and not just because I would have preferred Andy’s bourbon. Still, I have a feeling I’m going to need some bolstering, so I don’t push it back.
“What did you do?” I ask.
“We’re worried about you,” Grace says, which isn’t an answer. I know they’re worried about me. I’m worried about me.
“You have plenty of reasons for that,” I concede.
After all, it’s not every day a woman is left at the altar. It would’ve been easier to get over the whole thing if one of our guests hadn’t caught it all on tape, including me tripping over the aisle runner and falling flat on my face. It became a viral gif and a meme, and my image is now all over the internet.
Spend fifteen minutes poking around, and you can find stills of my face registering horror before I run—followed by an image of me after I fell face-first on the carpet—accompanied by messages like: When I remembered Sisters of Sin is releasing today. When you find out he likes pineapple on pizza. Or, a personal favorite, When he realizes your sister is Sinclair Jones and that he was about to settle for second best.
Sometimes people get fancy and include the whole video. Or use it as a tongue-in-cheek response to other people’s posts online.
I write my own takes on the meme when I’m feeling punch-drunk, or particularly sorry for myself.
“You should sue,” Andy says.
I sigh. “We’ve been over this. I don’t know who got the footage. At this point, I’d have to sue thousands upon thousands of people to get it to go away. It’s not worth it. It would make it look like I care.”
“You do care,” Grace points out. From the look on her face, she cares too, which I appreciate. The thing is, there’s a very good chance that the jerk who recorded that video and released it was someone close to me. Not one of these two, obviously, because I trust them down to my soul, but someone else.
That knowledge keeps me up some nights.
“It doesn’t help that your asshole sister keeps talking about it to the press,” Andy says.
“Hey,” I say, lifting my hands, feeling a prickle of defensiveness. “This isn’t her fault.”
“Well, it would help if she’d shut the fuck up.”
“Yes,” I admit, “it would help.”
It would also help if she’d stop texting me little uplifting messages, often accompanied by selfies of her perfectly made-up face. Or if she would stop trying to FaceTime me at odd hours, working around the shooting schedule of her show, Sisters of Sin. Or if my sister, who’s older by two years, weren’t playing a character who’s eight years younger than me.
Sinclair’s pitying looks aren’t exactly boosting my self-esteem, is what I’m saying. Yes, my house looks like someone unleashed a pet tornado in it, and I’ve definitely looked better, but I need a little time to wallow, don’t I?
Wallowing is normal. Wallowing is healthy. I went to one appointment with a therapist, and she told me so, which I took as permission to never go back.
I tell my friends as much. “I know this whole thing will blow over eventually,” I add. “I’ll be fine. Perfectly fine.”
They exchange another look, which is frankly annoying, and then Andy points out, “It’s been three months, Marnie.”
Which pisses me off more. “I’m well aware of how long it’s been, Andy. I’m the one who designed the invitations.”
I take a sip of the donated wine.
Andy clears her throat. “It’s just. Chet has been doing some work for Tilton Expeditions.”
“What?” I nearly drop the wine glass. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Tilton Expeditions is Brock’s business, Brock being the man who whispered, Sorry, Marnie, I can’t go through with this, to me at the altar three months ago after making a proposal that was so over the top and frankly embarrassing that people would still be talking about it . . . if they weren’t instead talking about the fallout. Chet is Andy’s current boyfriend, a position no one has ever held for very long. I think it’s because she tends to date men who are hotter than they are smart, but I’m not in a situation to judge or offer advice.
Andy tilts her head and gives me a look.
“Fine. I get why you didn’t say anything.”
“Anyway,” she says slowly, “Brock asked your boss for a meeting next week. He’s going to hire your team for a new project, and he specifically said he wants you to be involved.”
“Fuck,” I bark out.
A blond woman in the booth next to ours pops her head over the back and gives me a dirty look, like a pissed-off groundhog. “Excuse me. I have a child over here,” she says fiercely. “This is the second time you’ve spoken a foul word. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have brought your kid to a bar on a Saturday night, lady,” Andy says, swiveling her head and looking up. “You’re lucky we’re not having a passion party.”
The woman huffs but drops back down into her booth. I’d like to pretend it has something to do with the glare I gave her, but I’m no fool.
Andy isn’t the kind of person you’d want to pick a fight with. She’s muscular and toned, and she’s got these I don’t take shit from anyone eyes that are so deep brown they’re almost black. It’s a superpower that’s not wasted on her gig as a daycare teacher, regardless of what her parents tell her.
Grace smiles at Andy. I smile at Andy. The two of us lack that natural ability to intimidate. If Andy’s a predator, then we’re more like prey. Give me fifteen minutes and a word processor, and I could put together a message that’ll really mess up someone’s day. Or a card that’ll make them feel excellent, horrible, or amused. But in real life it’s a bit difficult to excuse yourself for fifteen minutes in the middle of a tense moment. Lucky for me, and for Grace, we have Andy, the rare bobcat who befriends a couple of bunnies.
The thought’s almost enough to make me smile . . . and then I think of Brock hiring Val’s Visions.
“Why would he do that?” I whisper-hiss.
Grace does this half-shrug, half-head-tilt thing and says, “Maybe he feels guilty and wants to make sure you’re
Andy snorts. “Or he knows you’re the best graphic designer in town, and he wants you to do his work for him while also proving there are no hard feelings so he can stop looking like the bad guy. Sounds like he’s about to land a big deal with Edgar James.”
If I’d had a drink, I would have spat it out. “Seriously?”
Edgar James is a famous survivalist type. He had his own show for a while on the Discovery Channel, and now he
runs an extreme camping business with several locations across North Carolina. Brock has always been borderline obsessed with him. A few months back, Edgar nearly drowned on a white water rafting trip, and Brock, no joke, spent five hours trying to choose an appropriate sorry you almost drowned gift to send him. They’d only met once, at a conference, so my thoroughly ignored vote was no gift, but apparently sucking up pays off.
“No. I said it for shits and giggles,” Andy deadpans.
“I guess good things really do happen to bad people,” I say with a sigh.
“My point is that you’re going to have to see him, and you’ll be around other people who’ll be watching your every reaction,” Andy says. “Are you prepared for that?”
My smile slips, and I can feel my heart pounding too fast in my chest. I mean, I knew it would only be a matter of time before we ran into each other. Asheville’s hardly a huge city. I was just hoping it would be more like four years, or preferably ten. And that I’d be happily married to some nondescript handsome guy who I could wave in front of myself like a flag. See? You publicly humiliated me, but I did just fine.
“Sure,” I say, pouring an admirable amount of bravado into it, if I do say so myself. “I’m not the one who did a fucked-up thing.”
“No, but . . .” Grace looks to Andy for help.
“You don’t want him to think he broke you.”
“Ouch,” I say, rubbing my chest. “I . . .”
“Look at yourself,” Andy says in that tough love voice I’ve heard a lot of recently. “You’ve probably been wearing that
shirt for forty-eight hours.”
“Twenty-four,” I say sullenly. “I dress professionally for work. How I dress in my free time should be no one’s concern. The only thing I did today—other than this amazing outing, obviously—is visit my aunt.”
Andy raises her eyebrows as if to say I’m only proving her point.
“Aunt Helen is awesome. We had a wonderful afternoon.” I might be exaggerating slightly, since we spent the morning cleansing crystals, and she eventually made me leave because I had, and I quote, “dark energy,” but what can you do?
Grace and Andy are still giving me dubious looks, so I ask, “Why should I care what Brock thinks of me, anyway?”
“You shouldn’t,” Andy says. “But you do. You have a perfectly natural desire to see him suffer. So do I, honestly.”
Grace leans across the table a little. “Yeah, don’t you want revenge? That—” She peeks at the booth back behind her, and Andy rolls her eyes. “That jerk did something unforgivable. Wouldn’t it be nice to flaunt how well you’re doing without him?”
She’s one to talk. Still, she’s not wrong.
“Yes,” I say with a sigh, “but as you’ve both kindly pointed out, I’m not doing well.”
Truthfully, I don’t miss Brock. What I miss is my self-confidence, which has been shattered into a million little pieces that have been tumbled to the consistency of sand. What I miss is the temporary Band-Aid our relationship, which felt exciting right up until it didn’t, spread over my other problems. I’d told the therapist as much on that one session we had, and she said I had “a remarkably mature perspective.”
See? No reason to go back.
“We want you to do something about that,” Andy says resolutely.
“Yes, well, I’d also like to not be a loser wearing a dirty shirt stanning a TV show I never watch.”
“Movie,” Andy says, shaking her head sadly. “The Empire Strikes Back is a movie. It’s been out for, like, forty years.”
“I don’t need to feel worse about myself,” I mutter, picking idly at my sleeve. “Besides, I didn’t think this place would be so crowded.” Andy chose the bar, because that’s our deal—the person who selects the book also selects the meeting place. Summer Nights is a bit of a dive, with low lighting and a halfhearted attempt at beachside décor that’s not displeasing but it’s an odd choice for a mountain town in North Carolina.
Grace, who’s apparently voted herself good cop, slides a card across the table to me.
I look at it before I speak, mostly because I was expecting a different approach. I figured they’d ask me to go see that
therapist again, or bribe me to throw away the most offensive items in my wardrobe, many of which have been stolen from Drew. Maybe I’d even let them.
I pick up the card, taking a moment to appreciate the design before I absorb what’s written on it. “The Fairy Godmother Agency? Is this some kind of a joke?”
But I can’t lie, my mind is summoning an image of a pleasantly plump woman in a shimmery dress with a star-tipped wand. She looks a little like somebody’s mother, and she has an air of I’m going to make everything all right.
I have a thing for mother figures, I guess. I have to admit, it would be nice to hand my problems over to someone else.
“This is no joke,” Andy says. “They helped someone I know.”
“Did they make her a pumpkin carriage? Because I don’t know where I’d park something like that. Finding street
parking gives me hives.”
“No,” Andy says, giving me a pointed look. “Her husband left her. They helped her get even.”
I consider Andy’s comment for a full second before I burst out laughing. “You want me to hire a fairy godmother to fuck with Brock?”
There’s a beleaguered sigh from the next booth, but Andy must have really freaked out Momma Groundhog, because she doesn’t pop back up.
“They’re private investigators,” Andy says. “A husband-and-wife team. But their focus is on helping women who’ve
“Sounds like a country and western song.”
“I think they’re just called country songs,” Grace pipes up. “Why don’t you give it a try, Marnie? What do you have to lose?”
I don’t want to admit that she’s right, although I struggle to believe anyone can glue those grains of sand back together to restore my self-respect. Not when my face is on the internet thousands of times over. My mother’s always insisted there’s no such thing as bad press or negative attention, but she’s not the one who’s become a meme.
“They only take jobs by referral,” Andy says. “My friend and I told them your story, and they’re interested. They want to help.”
I could be angry. I could remind her that it’s my story to tell—or not—but let’s be honest, so many people know about what happened to me that it hardly matters if she’s confided in two more.
“I’ll take it under advisement,” I say instead, slipping the card into my pocket. I take another sip of the gifted wine.
“Now, how about that book we didn’t read?”
My friends exchange another look, then Andy says, “It was The Alchemist. I thought it might be inspirational for you.”
“I feel inspired already,” I say. “Give us the CliffsNotes version.”
They must know I’m done talking about Brock, the video, and everything, because Andy complies with my request and summarizes the book for us, and then Grace launches into an entertaining story about her boss’s latest antics.
She works for Vera Valentine, a dragon lady who happens to be one of the most famous living romance authors. The woman insists on typing every novel on a typewriter rather than a word processor, and one of Grace’s jobs is to transcribe them. She has many other jobs, including running a vast array of personal errands for Vera, everything from bringing Vera’s dog to a groomer who charges more than any hairstylist I’ve ever visited, to driving all the way to the Raleigh airport to check lost and found for a coat her boss thought she left there. (She didn’t.) But Grace is a prey animal, like me, and she takes it. Besides, The Wind in Her Hair was her favorite romance novel, and she’s convinced Vera will be her mentor someday, when she finally finishes her own book. Andy and I have our doubts.
We used to be fans too, but now I can’t separate the woman who uses my friend without any apparent appreciation and the artist who authored the books I enjoy. It’s another example of reality not living up to the fantasy, although Grace would never admit it. She’ll loudly proclaim she’s happy as she drops off Vera’s dry-cleaning and, at her bidding, explains the sources of the stains in depth.
It’s a mostly pleasant evening now that we’ve gotten the intervention behind us. I’m not at all upset with my friends as I bid them goodbye and head out to meet my Uber.
I jolt a little when someone shouts at me from behind, “Hey, Star Wars.”
I whirl around to see the bartender from earlier staring at me, leaning over the bar with his hands resting on the varnished wood. With his arms played out like they are, I can see how muscular they are beneath that shirt. Some deeply buried part of me purrs . . . until I notice the intensity of his whiskey stare.
Is he pissed that I didn’t tip him?
Wait. He never gave me a drink. If anyone should be pissed in this situation it’s me.
I try to rev up some righteous indignation, but I feel like a fly in a spider’s web. Now that he’s not standing by Angel Guy, I can see he’s a dangerously good-looking man, with dark brown hair and a barely there beard that might just be the result of an aversion to shaving. I say dangerous because he’s more my type than Angel Guy. There’s an edge to him that reminds me of one of the extras in Sinclair’s show. They always telegraph which of the male costars are bad boys by putting them in leather jackets, as if they’re part of the same motorcycle crew. Grace calls them the leathers. While the bartender’s not in leather, he has on a black Henley shirt, the sleeve of which is hiked up enough to show half an inch of a tattoo. The leathers are the kind of men you lust after but not the kind you bring home . . . or at least that’s the moral of Sinclair’s show.
Then again, it’s not exactly the kind of thing you’d watch for the plot. She’s been on it for seven years, and her character still hasn’t graduated college.
“What?” I finally reply, realizing the bartender is still looking at me.
“Can you flash me the Vulcan symbol again?” he asks, one side of his mouth hitching up.
“So you’re the one who has a thing for Vulcans.”
“Yeah, I guess I am.” His grin spreads, transforming his face from attractive but slightly threatening to radiant, and
it only stretches wider when I flash him the bird instead.
He laughs. “Looks a bit different than I remember it. Can you come closer and show me?”
I want to, dammit. It feels like we’re flirting, although I can’t forget who I am. I’m the woman from the meme, the loser in the oversized shirt, the normal sister of a celebrity.
Odds are this handsome man is just teasing me.
“What happened just now?” he asks, his smile fading. He looks almost worried.
“What?” I ask in alarm. Did my face go slack? Did a murderer enter the bar behind me?
“You were smiling, and now you’re not.”
“I remembered I’m a punchline, and everyone but me is in on the joke.”
The look in his eyes surprises me. It’s soulful, and he opens his mouth like he’s about to say something deep, or maybe refer me to a new therapist, but I suddenly can’t bear to be here. I turn and leave, feeling his gaze burning into my back, and if there are some residual shivers, like my body’s not quite done reacting to him, no one needs to know but me.
By the time I Uber home to the house I share with my brother, I can add regret to my list of grievances, because it’s hard to banish the image of the sexy bartender. At least Drew is away for his yearly camping trip with his friends, so no one is around to try to convince me not to make a drink that’s seventy percent alcohol.
A little while later, I’m sitting on the couch with my drink, my mind pleasantly hazy, studying that card—Fairy
Godmother Agency—when my phone rings with a FaceTime call from my sister.
Sighing, I set the card down on the coffee table and answer.
Sinclair’s flawless face is immediately sympathetic. She regards me the way someone might look at a bedraggled cat at their front door. Her gold-kissed brown hair falls in effortless waves around her face, although I know from experience that she probably spent at least an hour in a makeup chair to get the effect. Still, I hate seeing myself in that little rectangle above her image on the screen. We’ve always looked a little alike, only I’m the watered-down version. I’m a single ray of her blinding sunshine.
“Oh, Marnie,” she says. “What am I going to do with you?”
“I’m fine,” I insist, aware of my stiffening jaw.
“Honey, you’re not fine. You’re wearing that shirt again.”
I avoid the urge to lift a hand to hide it. “It’s three hours later on the East Coast. I’m about to go to bed.”
She bites her lip, looking unconvinced. “I’m worried about you. You’re staying out there all alone, with only Drew to look after you.”
“Drew’s great,” I insist, feeling an old need to defend him.
“But he’s a man, Marnie. You need a woman to take care of you.”
I have two, but there’s no point in saying so. Show business is cutthroat, and Sinclair doesn’t have many female friends. I suspect my mother is partially responsible for that. She sees every fresh face on the show as someone who could supersede Sinclair, every new starlet in the tabloids as competition.
“I’m going to send Mom to stay with you for a few weeks.”
The prospect of having my mother around for three weeks is enough to scare me stupid. She’s always found me lacking, and right now, I don’t need anyone to open my eyes to my faults. Besides, she’d definitely regard being sent to Asheville to spend time with me as some sort of punishment—and she’d make damn sure I knew it.
Just like that, I find myself blurting out, “You know, I actually just started seeing someone, Clair. I didn’t want to say anything because it’s new, but I really, really like him, and I don’t want it to get weird if Mom’s hanging around.”
Sinclair gives me a pitying look. “Oh, Marnie. You don’t need to pretend you have a boyfriend again.”
My jaw tenses. I did that once, in junior year of high school, two years after Mom and Sinclair left for Los Angeles, and my sister will never let me forget it. I mean, obviously, yes, I am lying again, but is it that difficult to believe that someone would want to date me? I’m gainfully employed, run a small and fairly successful side hustle, and own half this house. Even in crappy clothes, I’m not horrible to look at.
Of course, I’m no Sinclair Jones.
She’s still giving me this sad Oh, Marnie look, which must be the reason I snap, “I am dating someone. If you don’t
believe me, you can meet him. On FaceTime, obviously.”
“How about tomorrow?” she says cheerfully. She’s testing me, and I can practically see Andy rolling her eyes.
There’s no lost love between those two.
When it takes me a moment to answer, Sinclair tilts her head, giving me that you poor homeless cat look, and says,
“It’s okay, Marnie. I won’t think less of you if you’re lying. I understand. You’ve been through hell.”
“I’m not,” I huff. “Tomorrow’s great. What time?”
Her gaze narrows. “Eleven your time. We’ll have brunch together.”
“No way. Brunch would take too long. We can’t go more than five minutes without putting our hands all over each other.”
She smiles at me. “Then I’ll have quite the view. What’s his name, anyway?”
Panicking, I glance across the room, as if hoping to find my imaginary boyfriend’s name magically written on the wall. My gaze lands on a framed photo of Mount Mitchell.
“Mitchell,” I say triumphantly. It’s a perfectly reasonable name, a nice name.
My mind feels like a sandcastle blasted by a wave. “Mount—” I start, then panic, and finish, “Mountainbottom.”
If it were a voice call, I’d be smacking myself in the head right about now, but I keep the phone remarkably steady.
“Mitchell . . . Mountainbottom?” she repeats.
Her confusion is understandable.
“Uh-huh,” she says, her eyes glimmering. “I can’t wait to meet him. I look forward to seeing you and Mitchell tomorrow, Marnie.”
She hangs up, and for a moment I just stare at my phone.
Shit. I have thirteen hours to find a man named Mitchell Mountainbottom.
I mean, obviously I can’t find a man named Mitchell Mountainbottom. There probably isn’t a single man in the whole world with that name, but can I find one who’ll play pretend?
I won’t lie, I want to shock my sister. I want to prove to her that I’m not predictable little Marnie. Still, I am predictable little Marnie. And even if I find a stand-in boyfriend to wipe that smug look off her face, she’ll find out
the truth eventually, and then she’ll really think I’m pathetic.
I pull up my group chat with Grace and Andy. I send, I just told Sinclair that me and my boyfriend, Mitchell
Mountainbottom, would have brunch with her over Facetime tomorrow. On a scale from one to ten, how screwed am I?
Grace sends back a frowny face emoji. No offense, but that’s one of the worst made-up names I’ve ever heard. It’s almost as bad as Thurston Thrusterton in Vera’s worst book.
I panicked, I explain. She threatened to send Mom for a visit.
Yikes. Would any of your brother’s friends be willing to help?
I consider this for a beat, then respond, Drew’s on his camping trip with, like, all three of them.
Andy finally pipes in, but only to say, Call the Fairy Godmother Agency. TONIGHT. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
Laughter tears out of me.
What, are they going to turn a rat into a real boy?
Maybe, she responds. You’ll never know unless you ask. ;-) Seriously, you suck at asking for help. You need help asking for help. TAKE THE HELP, MARNIE.
Her words are true and resound in a way that slides in deep and settles.
My gaze lands on the card on the table. I grab my drink and finish it. Then I pour myself another. It’s only then that I pick up the card and dial the number.
A woman answers on the first ring. “It’s about time you called, Marnie.”
“Are you psych—” my mind supplies “psycho” before settling on, “—psychic?”
“No, but it doesn’t take a psychic to read you like a book.”
Good God. I haven’t even met this woman. I say as much, and she laughs.
“I’m the one who told you not to say foul words in a fucking bar. And you and your other friend listened. That’s definitely a problem. It’s also a problem that you let Griff keep passing you over at the bar. Oh, and you refused to let my husband buy you a drink. My husband is the most attractive man on the planet.”
For some reason my mind latches on to that detail. “You wanted me to hit on your husband?”
“I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, no,” she scoffs, “but it would have indicated you were in good mental health. And don’t get me started on your shirt. While I won’t deny that Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie, the shirt’s at least two sizes too large for you. Maybe three. It looks like it belongs to a man.”
“Wait a minute,” I say, my mind finally catching up. “You were all watching me earlier? Tonight was a setup?”
“More like a test,” she says.
“Did I pass?” It comes out more like pash.
“Yes,” she says. I experience a moment of stupid satisfaction before she finishes, “Although, to be honest, this is the kind of test you want to fail.”
Sounds about right.
I should be pissed at Andy for her role in all of this, and eventually I will be, but there’s a pleasant hum inside of me from the drink, and honestly, at least all of this is interesting and different. All the same, I can’t deny that the woman on the other end of this call doesn’t sound jolly and apple-cheeked, the way any halfway decent fairy godmother should. Actually, she’s kind of abrasive and bossy.
“What happens now?” I ask.
“A makeover is obviously on our punch list,” the woman says. “And we’ll need to conduct a full interview before we form a plan of action. Are you drunk?”
“Fun! Well, we’ll do it tomorrow afternoon.”
Panic claws at me at the mention of tomorrow, and I exclaim, “But I need Mitchell Mountainbottom.”
“Excuse me?” she says.
My brain, which suddenly feels like it’s enveloped in candy floss, tries to craft an explanation. “My sister wants to have brunch with me tomorrow. Well, she lives in Los Angeles, but she wants to have brunch over FaceTime.”
“Is there a point to this?”
“I . . . she was sort of pushing my buttons, and she threatened to send my mother to Asheville for three weeks. My mother and I don’t get along. So I told Sinclair I have a boyfriend. Named . . .” I pause and take a deep breath before continuing. “Mitchell Mountainbottom. I promised he’d be on the brunch call.”
The woman starts laughing as if I cracked a hilarious joke. “Oh, that’s good,” she says. “We can work with that.”
“We can?” I ask in shock.
“You’re going to borrow a boyfriend, Marnie. That’ll be step one.”
“A boyfriend?” I stammer. “Whose boyfriend?” It’s not like they grow on trees, after all.
“Yours, for now. What time does he need to show up?”
“Eleven. I can text you the address.”
She’s quiet for a moment, hopefully because she’s writing it down so she can send me a . . . what? A male prostitute? A man of the night?
Then she says, “Marnie, we’re going to turn your life around.”
Maybe I should be more alarmed by this whole thing, but my first response is a feeling of relief. Because even if she’s not the motherly figure I was hoping for, she sounds like she means business.
“I’ll be in touch tomorrow,” she says, and it occurs to me that I don’t even know my mystery benefactress’s name.
“What’s your name?” I blurt out.
“Nicole, but I’ll also answer to Fairy Godmother.”
“We can get Matt to do it,” Nicole suggests, taking a sip from Damien’s beer. If anyone else tried to take something from Damien, he’d have words for them, or a look so crushing they’d turn to applesauce, but he smiles at her. That’s Nicole and Damien for you, soft only for each other. And, yes, they’d twist that into a sex joke if I said it aloud.
They’re the only ones left at the bar. Even Reggie, the retiree who might as well live at Summer Nights, has gone home. “He’s single now. He’s kind of a shit actor, but he’s really pretty. We need someone pretty.”
Damien laughs, putting a hand on her thigh. “You know he hates it when you call him pretty.”
“Well, he’s obviously not as pretty as you.”
“What are you talking about?” I ask. “Other than rating your male friends. I’m a ten, aren’t I?”
“Eight and a half,” Nicole says. The blond wig she had on earlier is sitting on the bar, and her hair, always dyed some shade of pink, is a bright pop of color under the bar lights. “Damien’s the only ten.”
He kisses her knuckles, and I roll my eyes. They ignore me.
I was cleaning up in back, so I missed the first part of their conversation. In all likelihood, they’re discussing Marnie. She’s their next “sad case,” as Nicole calls their Fairy Godmother Agency clients, although I don’t think the term fits. Marnie’s sad for certain, with eyes so big you could drown in them, but she has a metal backbone. I saw it earlier, when she turned Damien down, and again when she gave me the finger. The spark in her eye could have lit a fire.
I don’t want to show too much interest, so I pick up a rag and start rubbing the already clean bar.
“We’re talking about our girl,” Nicole confirms. “She needs a fake boyfriend. We’re thinking Matt will do nicely.”
“Since he’s so pretty and all,” Damien says with an indulgent grin, hiking his hand up a little higher on her leg.
“Nicole has exacting standards.”
“Damn straight.” She gives him a wicked glance. “Just look at you, you beautiful bastard.”
“Oh, come on,” I complain without any heat. “I just cleaned up. You’re going to make me throw up, and then I’ll have to clean up again. It’ll be a vicious cycle.”
Truthfully though, my mind’s not on their PDA, which is always over the top. It’s on Marnie. Before she left, I was thinking I might like to take her home, even though I knew what Nicole and Damien were planning.
I typically don’t mess with their machinations. While Nicole named the bar Summer Nights and insisted on the beach theme, an homage to her irrational love for Grease, she and Damien mostly let me do as I please with it. I’m one-third owner because they gave—as in literally gave—me a stake in the place. I’m paying them for my share slowly, at my insistence, but I’m very aware of all they’ve done for me. I’m not the kind of dog who’s going to bite the hand that feeds him. Without them and my stepbrother, Gary, I don’t know where I’d be, but it wouldn’t be anywhere good. Still, there’s something about Marnie that makes me want to forget my own rules.
Maybe it’s because she’s bent but not broken.
She’s stronger than she thinks, and I’d like to be the man who helps her see that.
Hell, maybe I’m not nearly that noble, and I’d just like to fuck her.
“Why does she need a fake boyfriend?” I ask, going for casual. “I thought you were helping her with that video.”
“She was sort of drunk when I called her,” Nicole says nonchalantly, “but it had something to do with her sister. I guess the sister threatened to send their mother to Asheville to check on her, so Marnie panicked and made up a boyfriend. Happens to the best of us.”
Marnie’s sister is a starlet. Nicole played an episode of her show in the bar last night after closing, and Damien and I took turns groaning.
“Matt wouldn’t impress Sinclair,” I say.
I’ve met him before, and “douchebag” is putting it mildly. The man once got so drunk at Summer Nights that he pissed in the broom closet, thinking it was a bathroom. The thought of him hamming it up with Marnie, putting his arm around her and making innuendos with a shit-eating grin on his face, makes me fist my hands. He hasn’t even met her or heard her name, and I already want to punch him.
I’m not sure what’s wrong with me, but there’s definitely something going on, because I hear myself add, “What the hell. I’ll do it.”
Nicole looks me up and down. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me,” I say. “I might not be an actor, but I’m a bartender. It’s my job to charm people.”
“Yes, you’re extremely fucking charming,” she says, “but you’ve never agreed to do this kind of thing before. Why now?”
She has a point. The bar is my baby. I help Nicole and Damien out with certain things, including setting up their little meet-cutes for potential agency clients and occasional information-gathering missions, but I’ve always refused to pose as a fake boyfriend or fake date.
The thing is, I might be good at playing pretend—I’ve gotten far more than the requisite ten thousand hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in that book—but I don’t like it. It’s an unfortunate side effect of having grown up with the kind of father who couldn’t have gotten his shit together if he’d had two dozen instruction manuals.
All that practice came at great personal cost, and I don’t want to get stuck with another expense sheet.
Except here I am, basically begging Nicole and Damien to pick me, pick me. What is it about this woman that made me volunteer for something like this? Maybe I’d explain myself to them if I knew the answer.
“I never thought this day would come,” Damien says as a slow smile spreads across his face. “Nicole, FaceTime Gary. He needs to see this shit.”
She’s already pulling out her phone.
“Oh, come on, guys,” I say, slapping the rag down. “No need for the theatrics.”
Theatrics are their thing, though, and I already know they’re not going to give this up for anything.
“I resent this,” I say. “For the record.”
“No one’s making a record,” Damien says, smirking.
Nicole nudges him. “Speak for yourself.”
“Hello?” Gary asks, picking up the call.
Nicole swings the phone’s screen toward me. “Take a look at your brother,” she says.
“Yes,” Gary replies. “I’m familiar with what he looks like. Hey, Griff.”
I greet him with a salute. “Aren’t you supposed to be swimming at the pool tonight?”
“He has a point,” Damien says with a frown. The results of Gary’s last physical were alarming, and the doctor told him he needed to take precautionary measures to lower his blood pressure and avoid diabetes, two conditions that run in his family, so Damien and I teamed up to design a health regimen for him. We do a lot of the workouts with him to keep him honest, and his wife Liza has embraced the diabetic, heart-healthy-diet side of the equation.
“It’s my wild card night,” he says, his tone a little sullen. “I decided it was too cold to go to the pool. I don’t feel like walking around with wet hair.”
“You’re still supposed to do cardio,” I object, grateful for anything that takes the focus off me.
“Who says he didn’t?” Damien says, giving Nicole a wicked look.
She heaves a long-suffering sigh. “Oh goody, it’s another Gary’s boning my mom joke.”
That’s how I met this pair of maniacs: Gary is married to Nicole’s mother. When I left Asheville as a teenager, Gary was in his mid-twenties, a bachelor focused on his career. When I came back after a ten-year absence, he was engaged to a woman I’d never met. Those are years I can’t get back with him.
“Anyway, we didn’t call because you’re not swimming like you should be,” Nicole says. “We’re not the pool police. We called because your brother has a crush on someone. This is not his usual let’s go to pound town attraction, he genuinely has a crush on this woman. You should have seen him scoping her out when he thought no one was looking.”
“Was not,” I say, instantly transformed into a second-grader.
Gary’s face lights up. “Holy shit. This is awesome! Liza!” he calls out, Liza being his wife.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I groan, glaring at Nicole. “I offered to help you out. You don’t have to make it a whole thing.”
“But it is a thing,” Nicole says victoriously. “You have never, ever agreed to be anyone’s fake squeeze before.”
“We’ve asked you before,” Damien comments blandly.
“We’ve begged you,” Nicole adds. “Didn’t we beg him when we were helping that one lady whose boyfriend ran off with her boss?”
“Begged him,” Damien agrees.
“But no go,” Nicole continues.
In the meantime, Liza has joined Gary on the screen. She gives us a bright smile, but there’s a shuttered look in her eyes that I’m not sure anyone else notices.
I don’t think Liza quite likes me, or at least she hasn’t forgiven me for the shit I’ve put Gary through. Weirdly, I like her more because of it. If I were in her shoes, I’d feel the same way.
Gary and his mom are the best people I know—they’re the lifeline I grabbed even though I knew I shouldn’t—and he deserves someone who loves him enough to resent me.
“To be fair,” I say, “I help you with a lot of things. The day that woman you mentioned came into the bar for your test, she started stroking my arm and quoting a poem about griffins. I’m pretty sure she would have sexually assaulted me if I’d shown up at her house.”
“So you wouldn’t mind if Marnie sexually assaulted you?” Nicole asks, accusatory.
“I don’t want anyone to sexually assault me,” I say, lifting my hands. “I’d think that would be a given.”
“What’s going on?” Liza asks softly.
“Oh, how the mighty have fallen,” Nicole says, her eyes sparkling. “Griffin has fallen prey to cupid’s arrows . . . he’s . . .”
“Very funny.” I’m tempted to revoke my offer, but when I open my mouth to say the words, I see Marnie’s big eyes—teasing one moment, devastated the next. I’ve never met anyone else whose emotions were so evident in a single look. Even now, even with my sort-of family giving me grief, I don’t want to take it back. I might not fully understand why I want this, but there’s no denying that I do.
“You know what? Enjoy it,” I say. “I’m glad to be your amusement for the evening.”
“It’s refreshing for it to be someone else for a change,” Gary says, although there’s plenty of humor in his voice. We do give him grief occasionally, but it’s because we all love him. We know, without having actually discussed it, that he’s the best of us, to be protected under all circumstances. Hence the health regimen. Damien, Nicole, and I are probably as desperate to keep him around for a long, long time as Liza is. His mother, who still insists I call her “Ma” even though she and my father divorced fourteen years ago and his ashes are floating in the Pacific Ocean, feels the same way. She’s a chronic food pusher, though, so she’s still adjusting to his new health regimen. I guess pushing sliced carrots on people just isn’t as satisfying.
“We’ll pass along information as it becomes available,” Nicole tells them, acting like she’s a reporter in a war zone.
I give a beleaguered sigh as she hangs up the phone and sets it on the bar.
When she looks up at me, she seems intensely pleased with herself. Damien does too, but maybe that’s because his hand is practically up to her underwear by now.
“Okay,” Nicole says. “The job is yours.”
I should be consumed with regret because they’re absolutely not going to let me live this down. Not even a little. But
the only thing I feel is anticipation.
I’m going to see Marnie tomorrow.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you the best part, Griff,” Nicole says. “Your new name is Mitchell Mountainbottom.”