It’s the waiting I hate the most. Nerves grow until they’re so thick in my stomach that I feel nauseous, my palms turning slick around my glass. Why had I ordered a Cosmo? I’ve never had one before in my life.
Brian’s late. How late is acceptable before I’m entitled to leave? Leaving would be the easier option. A quick text. Let’s rain check. But that would be fleeing, and I’d promised myself I would face my fears.
Idiot, I think. I should have started with something smaller. Confined spaces, spiders, the concept of infinity.
Just not blind dating.
I can’t handle the awkwardness. To see how he looks down at his phone, or worse, to look down at my own in search of an excuse. What if he’s visibly disappointed by me? Or worse, what if he wants to grab a nightcap and I don’t?
I take a fortifying sip of my pink drink. One drink. That’s all we have to share, and then I can say I have to get back home because I have work tomorrow. I’ll order some food on the way home to celebrate surviving.
The bar looks good, at least. He’d been the one to suggest it after a week of awkward text exchanges. Dim lighting and patrons in fancy clothes. Music at just the right volume. Not too loud, not too quiet. The prices are just shy of fortune-ruining, which is good for Manhattan.
My phone vibrates against the table with a text. Brian’s late, which I already know, and he apologizes profusely.
He actually uses the word profusely.
I put the phone down and take five steadying breaths. Maybe I should have eaten something after my job interview before coming here. Maybe scheduling a blind date and an interview for my dream job on the same day was too much. But I’d been caught up in a rush of adrenaline and bravery, and I’d done it.
And now I’m paying the price.
”It’s just a date,” I murmur to myself. The ball of nerves in my stomach doesn’t listen, continuing to spin in nausea-inducing patterns. “Just a date. I can leave if I don’t like it. Just leave.”
I don’t feel better, so I try another argument. One that Nina had said over and over again last night as she talked me back from the ledge of cancelling.
The only way to get more comfortable with it is exposure.
But exposure doesn’t seem so harmless tonight, and not when Brian just gave me another fifteen minutes to sit alone and look like a dork while my nerves rise from innocent butterflies to Hitchcock-like birds in my stomach.
I need a glass of cold water.
I leave my Cosmo on the table and head for the bar. It’s mostly empty, a few businessmen leaning against it in smarmy suits. Standing up feels good. Moving about feels good.
I lean against the bar and tap my fingers against the glass counter.
The bartender spots me. “Yes?”
“A cold glass of water, please,” I say. “Lots of ice.”
“Still or sparkling?”
“Sure thing.” He turns, but stops. “Would you like some lemon in that?”
“Just water. Please.” Why is dating horribly, awfully nerve-wracking for me? Everyone else seems to have a breeze doing it. They dance from one date to the next like it’s a game.
The bartender sets a tall glass of water in front of me. I drain it, every last drop, until there’s nothing but clinking ice left.
A voice speaks to my left. “You doing okay?”
I catch the sleeve of a suit jacket beside me, a large hand curled around a glass of scotch, but I keep my eye on my own. My chest is heaving. “Yes. Just fine, thank you.”
“Need another glass of water?” The voice is male, smooth and deep.
I shake my head and close my eyes. The last thing I need is someone to waste all my pent-up small-talk energy on. “Nope. All good.”
A small bowl of complimentary peanuts is pushed into my field of vision. “Just in case.”
The gesture makes me chuckle. It comes out like a nervous squeak, but it releases some of the tension rising up inside of me like a teapot.
“Thank you,” I say, turning toward him.
Light, tawny eyes meet mine. I’ve never seen eyes like that on a man before. Hair a dark shade of auburn is pushed back over his forehead, rising over a square face. “If you’re planning on having a panic attack,” he says, “I can think of better places than this bar.”
“I’m not having a panic attack. Besides, who plans on having one?”
“It’s just a figure of speech.”
“It’s a stupid one,” I say, and smooth my hands over my dress. Then I realize what I’ve just said. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you.”
He turns toward me, his lips curling at the corner. He’s tall, now that’s he’s stretched to his full height. “I’m not insulted.”
“Good. Well… thank you for the peanuts.”
“You’re welcome, although I have a confession to make. They were already here.”
I snort again. Perhaps this is good. I can blow off steam with this Wall Street banker. “I suspected. Nice gesture, though.”
He waves a hand at the bartender, who turns mid-stride to listen to whatever peanut guy has to say. I glance at his suit. He looks like money. It’s there in the well-fitting fabric, glossy beneath the dim lights. I don’t trust guys who look like him. Too charming to be real, and too rich to be humble.
“Another water for the lady,” he says. “Lots of ice, no lemon. You know the drill.”
The bartender nods. “Coming right up.”
He disappears down the bar and peanut guy turns back to me.
I frown at him. “You didn’t say please.”
His eyebrows rise. “I’m sorry?”
“To the bartender.” I’m speaking more frankly than usual, especially to a stranger, but my nerves have me turned upside down. My cheeks heat up. “I mean, it’s just more polite to say please.”
“Noted,” peanut guy says. He leans against the bar, lips still quirked. “Although, I’m sure that bartender has seen people far ruder than me in his days.”
“That’s not an excuse to be rude going forward.”
“I tip generously,” he says. “Always have.”
“Flinging money around doesn’t make up for a lack of manners.”
“So now I’m lacking manners? Interesting.”
I shake my head. “That’s not what I’m implying. Gosh, can we ignore where I tried to correct you? I’m sorry. That was rude of me.”
He doesn’t look the least bit offended. “Not particularly.”
The bartender returns with a full glass of ice water and puts it down in front of me. I open my mouth to say thank you, but peanut guy beats me to it.
“Thank you,” he says, voice dropping. “We really appreciate your help here tonight.”
The bartender doesn’t stop moving down the bar. “Anytime,” he tosses over his shoulder.
Peanut guy turns to me with a triumphant smile. “Am I back in your good graces now?”
He rests his suit-clad arms on the bar counter. “So what’s got you so bent out of shape?”
“Bent out of shape,” I repeat, reaching for my ice water. I drain half of it before confessing. “I’m actually waiting for someone.”
“I figured. Is he late?”
“He is, yeah. Is it obvious?”
“Well, you’re here and he’s not, so yes. Boyfriend?”
“Just a date.” I twirl my glass around. “A first date, actually.”
“And he’s late? That’s not a good sign.” Peanut guy reaches for an actual peanut, his hand cutting across my vision. It’s broad and lightly dusted with dark brown hair. A masculine hand, with long fingers. “How late is too late?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have a hard and fast rule about it.”
“Do you have hard and fast rules about a lot of things?”
I look over at him. It’s a bad idea, because he’s stupidly good-looking. Square jaw and eyes that meet mine with steady charm. Oddly enough, I’m not nervous talking to him. We’re so obviously not suited. He’s amusing himself, I’m distracting myself.
Exposure, I think.
“About some things, I guess. I have criteria.”
“Let’s hear them,” he says.
“Well, he has to be a nonsmoker.”
Peanut guy gives a nod. “Right.”
“I’d like it if he could cook me dinner once in a while.”
“So he needs to be a renowned chef,” he says. “Got it.”
I chuckle at that. “Right. Oh, and he has to subscribe to a newspaper or magazine. At least one, preferably more, and they can’t just be digital subscriptions.”
“Oddly specific,” he says. Long fingers curl around his glass, eyes the color of whiskey. “Is that a literacy test? Because I think you can reliably assume a guy your age would be able to read.”
“No, I’m a journalist.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes. I need someone who appreciates the written word, you know? I want to spend my Sunday mornings arguing over who has what portion of the newspaper.” Hearing myself, my cheeks flare up again. “I know how I sound. Like a hopeless romantic.”
“Are you one?”
“I’m a realistic romantic,” I say. “Which is why I’m on a first date with a stranger.”
He lifts an eyebrow again. “This is a blind date?”
“And he’s late. Really not off to a good start.”
I shrug, feeling the nerves settle into a current in my stomach. Talking to this guy helps. “Well, I’ll give him a shot. Something might have happened to him on the way here, you know.” I look over his shoulder, but the businessmen down the end of the bar counter are talking amongst themselves, paying him no mind. “Why are you here? Waiting for your own blind date?” I can’t say it without smiling. As if.
“No,” he says, swirling the amber liquid in his glass around. “I’ve met her before.”
That makes me roll my eyes. “Of course. She’s late too?”
“Yes. Often is, as a matter of fact.”
“I guess that’s not on your list of criteria, then.”
“No. Come to think of it, I don’t know if she subscribes to a newspaper.”
“You should ask her that tonight,” I say. “I’ve heard it’s a dealbreaker for some.”
His smile stretches wide. “So have I, kid,” he says. “Tell me why dating makes you this nervous.”
“Kid? We’re practically the same age!”
He’s still smiling. “Are we? I can’t remember the last time I was as nervous as you waiting for someone to show up.”
This guy is a roller coaster. “That doesn’t define my maturity. I’m twenty-six,” I say. Honesty makes me add the rest. “Well, I will be in four months’ time. How old are you?”
“Thirty-two,” he says.
That’s when my phone vibrates in my pocket again. Ice shoots through my veins, freezing me to the spot. Brian’s probably here. Has it already been fifteen minutes? God, I hate this. Hate it hate it hate it.
A glance down at my phone confirms it. I’m outside. Did you grab a table?
“Is that him?” Peanut guy says.
“Yes,” I murmur. “It’s showtime.”
“For him, not for you,” he says. “Just be yourself.”
“Right.” My fingers fly over my phone. I have a table inside.
“Good luck, kid. I’ll be over here if you need me.”
“Stop calling me a kid,” I say. My nerves are flaring up again, making me lash out. “And don’t look at me the whole date. That’s weird.”
He smiles wide, and I catch a hint of a dimple beneath the dark five-o’clock shadow coating his jaw. “Just signal and I’ll give you a plausible excuse.”
“Um, thanks. Have a nice evening,” I say and head toward my table. My disgusting drink stands there, forgotten. I sit down and smooth my hands over my dress. I can do this. When I look up, I cast my eyes about for a man striding my way.
Instead I meet peanut guy’s gaze.
He’s leaning against the bar, glass in hand, and gives me the smallest of nods. There’s a hint of a smile on his face.
The arrogant bastard.