Mon
Jul 24 2017 9:30am

Cathy Yardley Excerpt: One True Pairing

Cathy Yardley

One True Pairing by Cathy Yardley

Jake Reese needs a decoy girlfriend. Fast. The lead actor of the popular TV show, Mystics, is tired of losing his shirt to overeager fans. Literally. Which is why a chance meeting with gothabilly bookworm-slash-barista Hailey Frost seems almost too perfect to be true. Hailey is not impressed with his TV fame and is desperate to save her family's bookstore. It's a match made in Hollywood, but as the two pretend to date, fan fiction becomes reality. Can this OTP become canon?

Get a sneak peek at Cathy Yardley's One True Pairing (available July 25, 2017) with an exclusive excerpt of a selected scene.

Chapter 1

Just hang in there, Jake. You can do this.

Jake Reese sat in a crowded restaurant in Issaquah, Washington, surrounded by women. Many men would consider this ideal—hell, some would consider it a dream come true. For Jake, it was the job.

“These women have paid hundreds of dollars to have a sit-down meal with one of the stars of Mystics,” his agent, Susie, had said when explaining the gig. “So you’ll glad hand, you’ll answer questions, you’ll take selfies, you’ll eat something. No big deal.”

“Why don’t they just see us—me—at the convention?” Jake argued.

“Because they want one-on-one time, and they’re willing to pay for it,” Susie replied, in that maddeningly patient way of hers. “Your original contract, the one for the first two seasons, stipulated you’d do outside promotional support, and this VIP stuff really does help. Still, we’re renegotiating your new contract for the seasons moving forward, and they want to film season three soon. So, if you want that stricken . . .” She was using the tone of voice that screamed “this is a bad idea, but if you really want it, I’ll push, even though I’m advising against it like any rational person would.”

“I play ball.”

Which was what he was doing now, sitting with fifteen or so “super fans” at a long table in a chic little bistro, trying to stay calm. Not that he minded hanging out with fans, generally speaking. He was actually looking forward to the Mystics convention where he’d be one of the star attractions, along with his two co-stars, Miles and Simon. And his secretly geeky heart was looking forward to it.

Once, a few years ago, Jake had gone in disguise to the San Diego Comic-Con, to see what the experience was like, and it’d been a blast: amazing costumes, throngs of people, video games, and the artist’s alley and movie screenings, and he’d heard stories about the Supernatural’s own fan events, which was much more in line with what Mystics was aiming for: something more intimate, aimed at the true super fans. As a new show with only two seasons under its belt, their fandom was still young, so it was still developing its audience. These VIPs were the cornerstone of that audience.

Still, he’d been around his dad when there were fans, face-to-face interaction, and liquor. They tended to get rowdy in their adulation, an energy his father fed on. He shuddered, remembering. He couldn’t help but notice that this time, the wine had been flowing pretty freely to a few of the VIPs.

He had a sense of foreboding, and forced himself not to look at his watch.

“Rick . . .” a woman sitting to his right said in a breathy voice.

“Jake,” he corrected gently. “Rick’s just, you know, my character.”

She looked disappointed, but another woman, a redhead to her right, picked up the ball. The redhead had been one of the ones he’d noticed drinking steadily, ordering red wine after red wine as their meals were served. She was staring at him like he was dessert. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

“Jake,” the redhead said, correctly, with just the slightest slur to her words. “You’re even sexier than you are on TV, you know that?”

She was wearing a too-tight T-shirt that said ALL KNIGHT LONG on it—one of the memes from Mystics, referencing their Knights Templar heritage. The woman looked to be in her late forties, but well-maintained, passing easily for midthirties at least. She had an almost over-bright, predatory look in her eyes.

He’d admit it: it made him nervous.

“Mr. Reese,” a serious girl, maybe in her late teens, interrupted. He wondered how she’d gotten the money to go to a VIP event, which wasn’t cheap, then wondered if she was missing school for this. She had shoulder-length brown hair and was wearing a sweater, a nod to the brisk March weather. She studied him owlishly from behind smudged glasses. She had a binder of Mystics photos and paraphernalia.

Now here is my favorite kind of fan. He smiled kindly, relieved to shift focus.

“I was wondering,” she asked, “what made you decide to go into acting?”

He stiffened, then went into his practiced spiel. “Some of you might know my father, Kurt Windlass.”

There was an appreciative chuckle all around. Of course they knew his father, he thought. If you’d watched an action film sometime in the past twenty years, you knew his famous father.

“I’d always seen my father working from a young age. He always seemed to love what he was doing. I pursued acting when I was in my teens. He noticed, and encouraged me. I wound up following in his footsteps.”

It was a glossy version—the PR version, he thought. Really, it was all they needed to hear.

“Are you planning on going into movies, as well?” Glasses Girl asked. She seemed earnest, intelligent, and kind. A nice kid. He could’ve probably talked to people like her all afternoon.

“I’m looking over scripts, but nothing’s jumped out at me yet.” He smiled gently. “My agent says I’m too picky.”

She smiled back. “But you liked Mystics?”

“I loved it, right from the start. I’m a huge urban fantasy, epic fantasy, sci-fi fan. A total geek at heart.”

“I find that hard to believe.” The girl reddened.

“You were a model, too, right?” the redhead interrupted, licking her lips. Swear to God, licking her lips. She couldn’t be more obvious if she’d written DO ME on her forehead in Sharpie. “I remember that underwear ad you did. So hot.”

“Mom!” the teen said, burying her face in her palm. “Really?”

His eyes popped before he could stop them. The redhead was the teen’s mother? Yikes.

“Yes, I did some modeling, but not so much anymore,” Jake said, after clearing his throat. “I only did it because it helped pay the bills. The carpentry and construction jobs were a little light, and a friend of mine had gotten a campaign, so . . .”

“And that was your big break, right?” the teen asked. He got the feeling she knew more than she was saying. Probably she knew more than he was willing to say.

He nodded. “Modeling is what got me my first acting gigs, guest starring on some sitcoms and a few teen shows. Now that I’m on Mystics, I like to focus on that, instead.”

“It’s such a great show,” the teen said. “I love the writing. And I love the interaction between you and the other brothers—Simon, Miles.”

He grinned. “They really are like brothers,” he agreed. “They were working together on that show, when they were teens . . .”

Double Negative,” the teen supplied, then blushed again.

“Right. So they’ve been best friends for a while. They even share a house in Vancouver.”

“Is it hard, when they’ve known each other for a while, and you’re kind of the odd man out?”

He paused, looking at her. This girl with her glasses was pretty perceptive.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “Sometimes.”

“They’re so hot,” the redhead purred, obviously bored with the line of questioning. For a change, Jake was okay with changing the topic back to hotness. “But you’re totally the hottest. I’m so glad you’re the one that got roped into this VIP!”

“I’m surprised it wasn’t Simon,” the teen noted. “I think he’s from near here, originally, or something.”

“So, you guys also going to the Mystics con, over at the hotel?” Jake asked, deciding to take the conversation into his own hands and start wrapping things up. “Looking forward to it?”

“Absolutely!” the mom said. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

There were quick cheers of assent from the women around him. He glanced at his watch, then looked for the handler, who seemed to be missing in action. He needed to get over to the hotel and decompress. He’d promised to do this extra pre-pre-VIP outing, but now he wanted nothing more than to get settled in to the hotel and get a good night’s sleep. He wanted to be prepped for the first day of the Mystics convention.

“Well, it’s been wonderful meeting all of you,” he said, standing up. There was a chorus of disappointed “awwwwwwws,” so he held up his hands. “I know, I know. But I do have to go. I hope to see most of you at the Mystics con!”

His smile felt pasted on. The thought of being surrounded by all these people, a crush of bodies, and the subsequent feeling of being a beefcake on display made him feel like running as far as he could. But no—his job depended on him putting himself out there, objectified or not. He’d just suck it up.

“Can I get one more autograph?” the redhead said.

“Um, sure.” He pulled out his pen. “What do you want me to sign?”

She got a mischievous smile, and he could see the teen’s aghast expression just seconds before the woman yanked her shirt up, producing a pair of plastic-perfect boobs in a bloodred bra.

“Could you sign these?”

He blanched, as there were hoots and hollers. It felt like he was a stripper at a bachelorette party. He took a deep breath.

“Right or left?” he said, trying to stay game. Just a few more minutes, you got this . . .

“You pick,” she said, winking. “Surprise me.”

He quickly scrawled “Jake” over her right boob, a hasty, illegible autograph.

“Sign me, too!”

Crap. He had to escape before this got any worse. “I really have to go, ladies,” he apologized quickly. “I’ll be signing at the hotel, during the—”

“Can I have a hug?” the redhead said, and before he could respond, she’d thrown her arms around him.

“Gack!” he protested.

“Hey, I want a hug!” another woman said, and he felt another set of arms wrapping around him.

He felt panic start to set in. “Now, ladies. . . . Come on . . . I need to . . .”

He yelped as he felt hands cup his ass.

“Whoa! Excuse me!”

He glanced around. Where the hell was the handler? He saw a woman in the crowd, the one who had booked the restaurant for the VIP. The restaurant manager was yelling at her. Several waiters were trying to break up the now-frenzied women.

He felt a hand—Jesus, was the woman an octopus?—start to move around the front of his jeans, and he jolted away. Then there was yet another hand on his ass. He heard a rip.

“I got his pocket!” someone shouted.

He felt it—the back pocket of his jeans had just gotten torn the hell off.

What. The ever-loving. Fuck!

He felt cornered, angry—and unnerved, both by their audacity and what he might do to try to stop their advances. This was not okay, on so many levels. He hadn’t felt this violated since his most persistent stalker had somehow sneaked onto his property and left him dozens of “love notes” in his bedroom.

He shoved a little, fear giving him energy. He moved his way to the door, ignoring the groping fingers that were tugging at him. Grabbing his leather jacket, he made a beeline for the door.

“Wait! Wait!” they protested. Several began following him.

He opened the door, taking a gulping lungful of air. Then, out of sheer self-preservation, he started running.

“Wait!” a woman shouted, and then he heard them tumbling out of the restaurant, calling his name.

He felt like a guy from The Walking Dead, being hunted by zombies. He had to get the hell out of here. He didn’t have a car—his flight had been running late and he’d taken a taxi rather than wait for a rental—and he got the feeling waiting for an Uber or something was just going to make him a sitting duck for the eager, amorous, and vaguely buzzed women from the VIP lunch.

He needed to find a place to hide.

“There he is!” He heard a call, like a baying dog. “Over there!”

You can do this, Jake, he thought to himself, and started sprinting.

* * *

It had been an uneventful March day, but a long one. And for Hailey Frost, it wasn’t even half over. “C’mon, Hailey! I just want to grab a Herfy burger. Please?”

Hailey looked at the ceiling, taking a deep breath. “I’m just about to go off shift here, Stan. You know that.”

“Five minutes,” Stan, her co-worker at the coffee shop, pleaded. “Six minutes, tops.”

“Can’t you just grab something here?”

He wrinkled his nose at the attractive offering of quiches, sandwiches, and pastries. “I eat here every day,” he whined.

She huffed out a short sigh. She had almost an hour before she had to start her second job, but she hated feeling rushed. “Six minutes,” she said. “The casino will have my ass if I’m late, so hustle, okay?”

“Thank you thank you thank you,” he said, giving her a half hug and then bolting out the door. She smirked. Stan was a great guy, a good friend, especially in the last few months that she’d taken on the coffee shop as a second job. Helping him indulge in a burger seemed like the least she could do.

It was quiet, thankfully. There was a woman listening to an iPod and reading something, her head nodding gently. Two elderly women were having mochas and looking at pictures from a vacation on a tablet. And there was Mr. Temporary Office guy, who had set up his laptop and a mess of papers and was talking in an “aren’t-I-important” tone of voice on his Bluetooth headset, even though she could tell he was middle management at best. She’d seen guys like him all the time when she lived down in L.A.: men who liked to act like they were more important than they were.

Their inflated sense of self-importance, and desperate need to be admired, tended to make them better marks than most, she remembered. The cocktail of insecurity and greed tended to make them ready suckers, just waiting for the right bait.

Not going to think about that, though. She was stressed enough. It was better if she stayed positive.

She liked living up here in the Northwest much better than Southern Cal, anyway, she thought as she cleaned off the counter and wiped down tables. More than that, she loved living with her sisters—the foster sister she’d bonded with through several years of hardship, and the half sister she hadn’t met until she was in her teens. Through the years, they’d become her reason for staying on the straight and narrow. Helping them, supporting them, gave her purpose. She’d jump in front of a bus for either of them.

Which is why I’m going to jet out of here and catch that double shift at the casino, she thought as she straightened out the food display case. Their landlord had given them the Christmas present of raising the rent on their house-slash-bookstore for the New Year. Now it was March, and they were making rent so far . . . barely. They would have to come up with some way to get the bookstore to be more successful, or they’d go under.

The door opened quickly, and she glanced up, ready to tease Stan for his burger habit. But it wasn’t Stan. It was a gorgeous dark-haired guy, with a strong jaw and a leather jacket.

“Hide me,” the guy said, in a breathless, raspy tone.

“Excuse me?”

Before she could say anything else, he glanced behind him, then—unbelievably—he dashed behind the counter, hiding on the floor.

“Hey!” she yelped.

He held a finger to his lips, then pointed at the door.

A minute later, the door swung open with force, pushed by an onslaught of about ten to fifteen women, all a variety of ages, body types, and wardrobes. The one common trait they shared was a sort of giddy bloodlust.

“Where is he?”

Hailey’s protective instinct kicked in. She didn’t know what the guy’s story was, but she’d run enough cons to know when one went south. He was on the run, and these women were out for blood. It had all the earmarks of a guy hiding out from a gig gone wrong.

She also felt the familiar solidarity—honor, as it were, among thieves. God knows she’d had to dodge some marks when things had gone sideways, and she’d appreciated any help she could get—what little there was. At the very least, she’d figure out what was going on before ratting him out, if need be.

“Where is who?”

“Jake Reese!” a tall, red-haired woman said, holding her side as if she had a stitch in it and wincing. “You know—Rick, from Mystics!”

Hailey froze internally, and she mentally replayed the man’s face in her mind. She refused to look down, knowing it would tip off the women.

Oh, my God. It was Jake Reese.

Mystics? The TV show?” Hailey echoed. “The one with all those hot guys?”

“Yes!” the woman said eagerly.

“Have you seen him?” Another woman, sort of matronly looking with a sweater over a striped shirt, was searching the place like a bloodhound. “He’ll have ripped jeans.” She held up a patch of denim and cackled. “I got his pocket!”

Oh, holy shit. These women were out for flesh, all right, and it had nothing to do with Jake running a con on them.

“Trust me, if I saw a guy that hot, I wouldn’t be behind this counter,” Hailey said, and her voice all but dripped with authenticity, just the right amount of longing and curiosity. She could tell the exact moment when they believed her. “What would a guy like Jake Reese be doing here, though?”

“He was doing a VIP thing, over at the Flat Iron Grill,” a teenage girl said, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose, looking pained. “And before he was swarmed and groped . . .”

“Oh, don’t be so stuffy, Amelia,” the redhead said, rolling her eyes. “Guys love that sort of thing, believe me.”

“He made a break for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was running for the cops,” Amelia shot back, scowling.

“Well, he is smokin’ hot,” Hailey commiserated, causing the redhead to grin triumphantly at the girl, Amelia. “And he’s around here? Seriously? You’re not kidding?”

The redhead nodded. “Not even kidding. Can you imagine?”

“Well, crap. I’m stuck here until the end of my shift. I thought I saw a guy running past the window, down the mall. Thought he was a thief, actually.”

Don’t oversell it, she chastised herself. She was out of practice.

“Which way did he go?” Pocket-Ripper said, gripping the edge of the counter.

“That way,” Hailey said, pointing to the far end of the strip mall. “But he could probably . . .”

Before she could finish, Sweater-Woman was already moving. Redhead let out a hoot, like a baying hunting dog, and sprinted after the crowd. Only Amelia remained behind.

“Um, miss?”

Hailey bit her lip, hoping that the kid would move so she could hustle Jake out of here without incident. “Yes? Did you want some coffee?”

Amelia looked at her searchingly. “If you do happen to see Mr. Reese,” she said, her tone serious, “please apologize to him. From me.”

Hailey smiled. Amelia was no fool. “I’ll do that,” she said, nodding. Amelia nodded back, then strolled out.

Hailey waited a beat, then let out a breath, turning to the prone actor. “Well, that was a close one. You okay?”

“I am now,” he said, smiling at her. He was wearing a pair of dark blue jeans, a black T-shirt, and a brown leather jacket. His eyes were shockingly blue—like, Paul Newman blue. He was sex in a pair of Levi’s. “Damn. You’re not a bad actress, you know that?”

“I’m a terrible actress,” she corrected. “But I’m a hell of a liar.”

He chuckled. “Thanks for covering for me.”

“No worries,” she said, feeling a little fluttery burst of sexual awareness hum through her stomach—and, just as immediately, felt a little irritated with herself for it.

So he’s famous. So what?

“You’d better get out of here before the rampaging horde comes back, though.”

“You said it,” he agreed. “Can you tell me where this hotel is?”

He handed her a piece of paper, and she scanned the address. “Sure. It’s not far. Maybe a five-minute drive.”

“Can I call Uber or a cab from here?” he said, pulling out his phone.

“You could,” she said, shaking her head. “Only problem there: this isn’t that big of a shopping center. Those women are going to be back. Better make sure they know exactly where to pick you up, and wait until they’re out front before you leave.”

He glanced at her. “I don’t suppose you could take me,” he said with a hopeful smile.

She felt a jolt of awareness flash through her like an electric shock.

Dimples, she thought absently. They were her downfall.

Jake Reese gave great dimples.

She looked heavenward. “I have an afternoon shift, at my other job,” she said, trying to fight the pull of attraction she felt. This guy’s not for you, kiddo.

“You said it’s only five minutes away, though,” he wheedled.

“What is it with guys trying to get on my good side today?”

He deliberately turned, pointing at his ass. She saw the gaping hole where his pocket used to be. The guy was wearing striped boxers, she noticed. He also had an ass a woman could write odes to, she also couldn’t help but notice.

“I don’t think I’ll survive another round with those women,” he said, his eyes imploring.

Damn those dimples.

“Fine,” she said, ignoring the flash of his blue eyes and her corresponding hormonal bump. “As soon as my replacement comes back, I’ll . . .”

“Oh, thank you,” Jake said quickly. Before she knew it, he was hugging her.

She was being hugged by Jake Reese, a.k.a. Rick from Mystics, the brooding bad-boy with muscles for miles and a kick-ass Shelby Mustang. His character had successfully taken on Illuminati alien assassins as part of a secret brotherhood of Templar knights. She knew this because she watched the show religiously, threatening to kill people over spoilers. If she had any spare money, she’d probably go to the Mystics con that was happening that week.

Now, she was in his arms. Her mind was temporarily blown.

He smelled like expensive cologne, just a splash of it, plus some pure rugged male. Her body tightened in response, her breasts crushed up against the rock-hard wall of his chest.

Oh, my.

Of course, it was at that point that Stan breezed back in, a paper bag of greasy goodness in hand. “Thanks, Hales, I . . .” He stopped, jaw dropping at the sight in front of him.

Jake pulled back away from Hailey, with a rueful half smile.

“Well, I got a double burger and fries with a milkshake,” Stan said, tongue in cheek. “What goodies did you grab for lunch, girl?”

She rolled her eyes. “Say good-bye, Stan,” she said, grabbing her own leather jacket and throwing it on.

“Good-bye, Stan,” Stan replied, chuckling. With that, she did a quick scan for the fangirls, then grabbed Jake’s hand and tugged him toward the parking lot. She’d just take him to the hotel, drop him off, and head off to her shift. He’d get a ride, she’d get a story to tell her sisters and friends.

She glanced over her shoulder at him, then reddened, realizing she still held his hand. She didn’t have to lead him like a two-year-old. She tried to let him go.

He didn’t release her, though; instead, he squeezed. And she felt a resulting tension in her body as he winked at her before finally dropping her hand.

Her blush went a little deeper—she could feel the heat on her cheeks—and she looked straight ahead.

Drop him off and go to work, she chastised herself. The guy was hot as hell and twice as charming.

He was the last thing she needed. And she wasn’t going to be his mark.

* * *

Jake followed his rescuer to the parking lot, staring at her as surreptitiously as he could. She looked like a forties pinup mixed with a goth. Her dark brown hair was done up in elaborate curls, tied at the nape of her neck with a navy-blue bow. She was wearing a maraschino cherry–red sweater and jeans that hugged every curve, of which there were plenty. She was also wearing Dr. Martens that looked like she could stomp a man into powder and a black leather jacket that looked worn, not from fashion but from hard use.

She was, in a word, awesome.

He was grateful that she’d both saved him and was now transporting him to the relative safety of his hotel. He also couldn’t stop staring at her, which is why he didn’t realize they’d come to her car until she stopped him.

“Hop in,” she said. She gestured to a beat-up old station wagon, midnight blue except for the Bondo spots. It looked like, charitably, a hoopty. Or, uncharitably, like a piece of shit.

“This is your car?”

She lifted one perfectly sculpted eyebrow at the doubt in his voice, and made a pursed pout with her full scarlet lips. “Are you judging my ride?”

“No,” he said quickly. It wouldn’t do to have her strand him here. He got in, ignoring the cold of the patched vinyl seat. “It’s . . . unusual. Vintage,” he added, trying to remedy the situation.

She patted the dashboard lovingly. “Don’t listen to him, Charlotte,” she crooned.

“Your car’s name is Charlotte?”

She slammed the door shut. “Of course,” she said, as if it were perfectly obvious. “And don’t let how she looks fool you. She’s got it where it counts.”

“I’ll bet . . .” he started to say, and then the woman revved the engine. It sounded like a lion roaring, or maybe a mechanical T. rex. “Holy shit!”

Her smile was like the sun. “It’s bored out, blueprinted and balanced, with a radical cam and aluminum heads, a four-speed transmission, and a three-point-seven-three to one posi rear end. She does a twelve-second quarter mile at Pacific Raceways. Like I said: don’t let looks fool you.”

“I’m impressed,” he said. Actually, he was dumbfounded.

She shot him a curious glance. “No cracks about why a woman’s driving a car like this?”

“Nope,” he said, rubbing the crackled leather seat and feeling the thrum of the engine roar through him. “I’d ask about a price, but I get the feeling she’d never be for sale.”

“Too right.” The woman let out a throaty laugh that made his body tense in all the right places. It wasn’t like he was hard up for female companionship, but this woman wasn’t just any woman. Obviously, his body had noticed.

He cleared his throat. “So, you know my name. What’s yours?”

“Oh! Right. I’m Hailey,” she said. With ease, she pulled the large vehicle out of the parking lot, turning onto the main street.

“I owe you, Hailey,” he said. “Did I hear you’re a fan of the show?”

Her skin was olive-hued—maybe there was some Latina, or maybe Italian or Greek, in her background?—but it turned the greatest rose color when she blushed. “I do like Mystics,” she admitted. “My sister Cressida’s an even bigger fan.”

“You going to the convention?”

“Gotta work,” she said. “Even if I didn’t, though, I don’t really have the couple hundred bucks for admission to burn.”

Guilt pricked him, and he shifted uncomfortably on the bench seat. She was obviously going from one job to another, and he’d hijacked her into acting as a cabbie for him. “Can I give you some money for the ride?”

She shot him a quick, hard glance. “Wasn’t fishing for cash, ace,” she said with a tight grin. “Just pointing out the convention’s a little pricey for a relatively new show, and the first time you’ve had a convention.”

Now he felt his own cheeks heat. “Well, how about, like, a T-shirt or something? Some memorabilia? I can grab you some.”

She smiled more gently this time. “Cressida would love that, actually,” she said, then nodded, as if her sister was the deciding factor. “If it won’t take too long . . . ?”

“It’ll only take a minute,” he assured her, feeling a little better. She was right, it took less than five minutes to get there—considerably less, the way she drove. She took one of the last spots in the hotel lot as someone pulled out.

He got out, then looked at her. “Come with me, I’ll grab your stuff,” he said. Sure, he could’ve simply run in and grabbed it, but that would mean he wouldn’t get to spend those last few minutes with her—and then she’d just drive off into the sunset.

As they walked toward the building, he took her hand, grinning at her little jump of surprise. “Just wanted to show you where the lobby is,” he said innocently.

Her eyes went wide, but she didn’t pull away. He got the feeling that she wasn’t stunned easily, and felt inordinately proud.

That is, until he reached the desk. The lobby was a cacophony of chaos. People were trying to sign in, wearing various costumes. He could see what looked like a convention organizer arguing with a hotel manager type. There were also a bunch of men and women in business-casual gear, gawking with irritation at the disorder swirling around. Everybody, it seemed, was trying to get either checked in or checked out, and were complaining about the same.

Hailey nudged him. “I have to get to work,” she said.

He didn’t know why, but he didn’t want her leaving without anything. He didn’t want to be some fast-talking Hollywood type, welshing on his offer. “This’ll just take a second,” he said, then went in front of the line, nudging past people who were getting gradually pissed about it. He stopped the manager. “Hi, there.”

The manager, a thin man with a pronounced Adam’s apple and receding hairline, glared at him. “You’re going to have to go back in line with everybody else,” he snapped.

Jake released Hailey’s hand, crossing his arms in front of his chest and glaring back. “I’m Jake Reese.”

The manager looked distinctly unimpressed.

“I’m with the show? The convention?” he said, feeling like a total schmuck to have to put it that way. “I’m supposed to have a room here.”

“So does everyone in line,” the manager said loudly. “You’ll have to wait your turn.”

Jake felt humiliation burn at him. It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t in front of Hailey, but he’d made a big deal about this, and now he was striking out. Maybe if I used my dad’s name, this guy’d snap to, Jake thought bitterly. Which is why he wasn’t going to use it. He felt like enough of a douchebag for saying he was with the show. He wasn’t going to compound it by pulling the Hollywood royalty card, cementing the impression of “entitled asshole.”

He glanced back at Hailey, ready to apologize, only to see her studying the manager shrewdly.

“Maybe you didn’t hear properly. This is Jake Reese,” she said sharply, her tone making the manager stand a bit straighter—as well as a woman at the nearby counter. “Don’t you know who he is? He’s one of the main attractions at the convention that’s setting up—chaotically, I can’t help but notice. He’s the reason that all these women are shelling out three hundred dollars, not to mention the hotel fees. And you know a lot of them are going to be eating at your restaurants.”

The manager blanched. She surreptitiously nudged Jake, and he took the hint, standing a little straighter, trying to look haughty. Maybe he should consider hiring Hailey to be his handler, he thought with a smirk. She seemed to have some skills in that area.

“Jake Reese?” the woman behind the counter said, stepping away from an irate customer. “I’m so sorry. I thought that someone had contacted you. There was a huge mix-up. The dental convention let out later than we booked, and there’s been a lot of miscommunication with the convention organizers. We have your bag here, behind the counter. Give me just a second to grab it.”

She dashed off, and he stared after her, mystified. What mix-up? And why is she giving me my bag? Why isn’t it, I don’t know, in my room?

She handed it to him. “I’ve got a lead on a few rooms in other hotels,” she said, “but it’s kind of a busy season right now. There are conventions and business meetings all over the city, so, um, I’ve had a hard time finding anything available.”

He stared at the bag for a second, blinking. “Are you telling me I don’t have a room?”

“I’m so sorry,” she said, and she looked near tears. He sighed.

“It’s, um, okay,” he answered, nonplussed. “Really. I’ll figure something out.”

“You can room with us, Jake!” a woman at the counter said, waving a key card.

“Oh, shit,” he muttered.

“We are sorry for the inconvenience,” the manager said stiffly. “You will absolutely have a room available tomorrow.”

“I expect you’ll ensure that it’s more than adequate,” Hailey said, and the manager guy cowered. Actually cowered. It was kind of glorious. “Come on, Jake. You can bet your ass that upper management will be hearing about this.”

He took his bag and followed her out, ignoring some of the catcalls from fans who were starting to recognize him. “What are you doing?” he whispered.

“Just follow me,” she hissed back. Pretty soon, they were back at her car.

“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling like the hotel clerk. “Really, really sorry. If you give me your address, I’ll make sure stuff is shipped to you.” He rubbed the back of his neck. Saying good-bye to Hailey had just gotten a hell of a lot more awkward. “Now I guess I’d, um, better look for another . . .”

To his surprise, she burst out laughing. “Man. That is just one big clusterfuck in there, isn’t it?”

Slowly, he grinned. “They’re still figuring it out,” he said. “They’re a new convention company, so it’ll take a while to work the kinks out, I think. Thanks for the rescue back there.”

“Guys like that give me hives,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Self-important, doesn’t pay attention unless you’re ‘worth paying attention to’ in his mind. And unable to handle stress. My sister Rachel does event planning up at the casino, and she’d have that place running like a Swiss watch without breaking a sweat.”

He felt the warmth in her voice when she talked about her sister. “Yeah, he was kind of a dickhead,” he agreed.

“Incompetence. Such a turnoff,” Hailey said decisively.

Suggesting that a guy who knew what he was doing might be a turn-on for her. He filed that away mentally.

For . . . reasons.

“Anyway, they’re right. Everything is booked around here,” Hailey said apologetically as they made it back to her car. “I don’t know if March is convention season or what, but I know that a lot of hotels are full.”

“How do you know that?”

“I work at a casino that’s also a large hotel,” she said with a sigh. “It’s sold out right now, too—there’s a big tournament, and a lot of tourists—and Rachel told me they had to arrange for transportation to other hotels for some of the attendees.”

He felt a pang of disappointment. It would’ve been cool to spend a bit more time with her—wander down to where she was dealing blackjack, maybe watch her work. Maybe see if she had a dinner break. He owed her that, at least.

And that’s totally not why you want to stay in the hotel where she works, he admitted to himself.

Her smile was broad, and mischievous. “As luck would have it, though, I happen to have a room reserved there for tonight.”

He felt a zing course through his body, like when he’d accidentally touched a live wire, back when he was doing construction. “You do?”

Was she asking him to stay with her?

Yes, please! His body clamored.

“And you can use it,” she said. “I’m feeling generous.”

“Really?” It sounded perfect. “That would be awesome,” he said, with feeling. Then he cleared his throat. Just because she was sharing her room, it didn’t mean she was giving him an open invitation to her bed—or other things. “I can, um, sleep on a cot. Or the couch.”

She shook her head. “I live just down the hill,” she said. “I don’t need to use the room at all.”

He frowned. “But . . . you got the hotel room for you, right?”

“I get a night every month,” she said, shrugging. “Don’t worry. I’ll cancel my plans.”

Now that he realized he was getting the room rather than her, and putting her out, he felt like a total jackass. “I don’t want you to go through the trouble,” he said. “Really, it’s no big deal. I can figure this out.”

“Do you want to go searching around for a no-tell motel for a while, or fight traffic and go into Seattle itself . . . or do you want to take me up on a nice room, in a casino with great restaurants, that’s maybe fifteen minutes away?”

“When you put it that way,” he conceded, but still felt a twinge of guilt. “Are they important plans, though?”

She shrugged. “Nah. It’s not a big deal, really.”

“Well then,” he said, feeling overwhelmingly relieved, if disappointed, “I’ll definitely take you up on it. Thanks.”

She turned the car around and they started speeding toward the highway, like a large blue-gray shark. That roared.

“So, why do you rent a room once a month?” he asked, curious. “Just a little staycation? Spa day?”

She quirked her lips into a little smirk. “Something like that.”

A mystery. Suddenly, he wanted to know everything about this girl. She worked two jobs. She looked like Rosie the Riveter in a street gang.

Who was this Hailey woman?

“What’s ‘something like that,’ exactly?” he found himself asking instead.

She glanced at him, her violet eyes sparkling.

“If you must know,” she said, sighing, “I was going to get laid.”

***
Copyright © 2017 by Cathy Yardley.
***
Learn more about or order a copy of One True Pairing by Cathy Yardley, available July 25, 2017:

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Cathy Yardley is the author of the Fandom Hearts series, starting with Level Up, and needs to get out more. When not writing, she's usually lurking on social media, playing Fallout 4, or watching D-list movies and adding to her unnatural mental store of character-actor trivia. She's a fangirl of Supernatural, Doctor Who, Sherlock, LOTR, and too many others to name. She lives with her family in Seattle. They are considering performing an intervention for her addiction to pop culture.

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2 comments
Jennifer Proffitt
2. JenniferProffitt
I am so excited! I loved Level Up and can't wait for this one!
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