Fresh Meet - Prologue

Jace

 

Women are crazy. 

 

I will probably deny ever having had this thought, but they are absolute nut jobs.

 

Especially the one standing in front of me.

 

Or maybe it's just my shitty talent of picking them.

 

With one hand poised on her hip, and her other one clutched tightly around the now empty wineglass, Sandra has a bigger resemblance to a snake-loving Medusa than the beautiful and exotic bikini model I enjoyed spending some of my downtime with. 

 

Used to enjoy spending downtime with.

 

As of three minutes ago, right after I told her we should stop seeing each other—and she unceremoniously dumped her red wine on me. I'd say the breakup was successful. 

 

Which is exactly what I wanted.

 

But I could have gone without the drama.

 

If her pursed lips are anything to go by, we're not done for tonight. 

 

"Jace Atwood, I can't believe you're treating me like this. I thought we had something special. You're . . . you're . . . such an egomaniac asshole." Her voice is so high and screechy, I'm afraid every glass in this restaurant is going to burst any moment.

 

I'm not sure anyone would notice since everyone's attention is on this very public display of my newest failure of "How to dump a fuck-buddy-slash-casual-date in public."

 

I don’t often indulge in women because spoiler alert, I’m still clueless on how to pick a woman who actually means it when she says she wants casual.

 

My bad judgment is apparent by the drenched light blue dress shirt that’s clinging to my upper body like a second skin.

 

My bad.

 

I should have known better. 

 

At least I was smart enough to ask for the corner table in the back of the restaurant. 

 

With the help of the host, we get a very upset Sandra into a cab in less than ten minutes. 

 

It’s a quiet evening otherwise, and George, the host and long-time fan of my career, waits with me for the valet to get my car. “How’s training going?”

 

Pushing my hands in the pockets of my black slacks, I kick a pebble onto the wet streets and chuckle. “It’s going. I definitely feel my age.”

 

The grin on his face comes fast, bringing out every last laugh line. I’m sure he’s earned every single one in his life fair and square. 

 

His hand comes down on my shoulder. Hard. “You’re twenty-eight, Atwood. I’m almost three times your age. That’s when you’re allowed to complain about your aches and pains. Gosh, when I was your age . . . I would have given everything to be a professional swimmer, but you know that.” 

 

I do. I come here regularly, either by myself or with company. Partially because of George, not that I’d admit that to him. I’d never hear the end of it. 

 

The valet stops at the curb with my SUV, and I wave at my friend as I make my way to the driver’s side. “I’ll make sure to remember that. Tell that lovely wife of yours I said hi.”

 

He salutes and sees me off as I leave downtown Berkeley. 

 

***

 

I’m not surprised to see a black Mercedes in my driveway when I get home, my best friend Hunter leaning against the sleek passenger side.

 

After stepping out of my car, I walk past him, knowing he’s going to fall in step with me. “I swear, George is the biggest gossip I know. And fast.”

 

Hunter chuckles. “You know he’s sharp as a nail. He just enjoys pretending otherwise sometimes.” He elbows me, pointing at my shirt. “But I was going to come over anyway. I had to see the damage for myself.”

 

“Great.” My teeth clench as I unlock the front door. 

 

As if he knows I’ve had enough for today, he holds up his hands before clapping one on my shoulder. “Sorry, bro.” He reaches behind his back and pulls out a DVD. “I brought entertainment, that Aquaman movie you’ve wanted to watch, so get cleaned up.”

 

I grunt and walk to my bedroom to take off my sticky, wet clothes. 

 

After a quick shower, I feel marginally better and head back to the living room, my naked feet cold on the hardwood floor. 

 

Hunter is stretched out on one of the sofas. It’s a familiar scene, something we do as often as our demanding training schedules allow. We met during summer swim camp when we were teenagers—alongside our friends Noah and Ryan—and despite competing against each other throughout our careers, our friendship has remained tight.

 

“Finally, dude. I’m not getting any younger here.” He throws a piece of popcorn at me as I walk to the kitchen to get some water.

I shake my head. “Doesn’t look like you had any interesting plans tonight anyway.”

 

He’s a bit of a loner, like me. Like all of us are. Except Ryan. He’s got Harper now.

 

It’s not always easy to fit in a healthy social life with the little time we have outside the pool and gym, which is exactly why I haven’t attempted a serious relationship.

 

Hunter’s about to say something—most likely another smart-ass retort—when the doorbell rings. We both frown, knowing I didn’t expect anyone. And as much as Hunter likes to drop by uninvitedly, he wouldn’t invite others without asking.

 

When I open the front door, there’s an old lady on my front porch. With short, dark gray hair, and a sad look in her eyes, she wordlessly holds out an envelope to me. I take it, too perplexed to say anything. 

 

She watches me, her eyes slowly roaming over me from head to toe. Inspecting me. Appraising me. For what, I have no clue.

 

“Who are you?” 

 

“I’m Bette. My contact information is in the envelope. I’m sure you’ll have questions, and I’ll try to answer them as best as I can, but I have to go home for now. Have a lovely evening.” Her voice is gentle. She sounds tired.

 

I barely register her departure as I rip open the envelope with a sense of foreboding.

 

I’m not sure how long I stand there, but at some point, Hunter leads me into the house, practically shoving me onto the couch.

 

“You’re as white as a ghost. What’s going on?” The unsure tone in my otherwise steady friend is what makes me look up at him.

 

My mouth opens, but words still evade me.

 

Hunter rubs over his short hair, a frantic look on his face. “You’re starting to really freak me out. Who was at the door and what does the letter say?”

 

“It’s from . . . it’s from a woman. A fling. Hookup.” The words sound stale coming out of my mouth. Like by saying them out loud, I’m inadvertently calling her bad names. “She . . . she . . . um, she died.”

 

Hunter drops on the couch like a sack of potatoes. “Fuck, man. I . . . I’m sorry.”

 

I look away. Disbelief tears through my body.

 

“Hunt, she had a son. Apparently, my son.”

Chapter One

 

Emilia

 

“What about a chicken sexer? That can’t be that hard, right?” I grind my teeth together to keep from laughing as I peek over my laptop screen at Nicole.

 

We sit at opposite ends of my bed, and she cocks her head to the side as if she didn’t hear me correctly. “Did you just say chicken sexer?”

 

“Mm-hmm.” Gosh, it’s hard not to laugh.

 

“What the hell is a chicken sexer?” 

 

And I lose it and laugh loudly. 

 

Nicole shakes her head and smirks. “Does that even exist?”

 

When I’ve calmed down, I nod and squint back at my screen, silently willing the letters to stop from jumping around. “Apparently, they sort chicks by gender.”

 

Nicole raises her eyebrows.

 

“I swear, I’m not making this up. They actually make some good money too.” I turn the laptop around so she can see. 

 

“Well, you learn something new every day.” Her phone vibrates next to her, and after typing on the screen, she looks back at me. “Have we moved on to looking for crazy jobs now?”

 

I shrug. “Sorry, I’ve been looking at normal job listings all day and can’t find anything that would work for me. I needed a break.”

 

She gives me a sympathetic smile, knowing how stressful it’s been trying to find something new. 

 

Nodding, she leans back against the headboard. “Okay, let’s take a break, then. Have you found anything else fun? Let’s hear it.”

 

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m excited at her question, eager to share my newfound knowledge with someone, no matter how irrelevant it is.

 

It’s the little things in life. “I’m so glad you asked. One moment, please.”

 

She adjusts her position a few times before pulling my soft teal blanket over her legs, patiently waiting for me to pull up my info. “So, there are hippotherapists, crime scene cleaners, live mannequins, and fortune cookie writers. Those were my favorites. I might be down for a live mannequin job. Apparently, they pay one hundred bucks per hour.”

 

Nicole shoots up. “No way.”

 

“Yup. Crazy, right?”

 

“Seriously.” She points to my laptop. “What’s a hippotherapist? I can read it if you want.”

 

Shaking my head, I search through the million tabs I have open in my web browser. “I still have the app open. Let me pull it up.”

 

Nicole doesn’t blink an eye. She’s used to this on an almost daily basis. Thank goodness for technology. It makes my life so much easier, and so much less embarrassing.

 

After finally finding the right window, I push the play button to start the robotic voice. 

 

“Hippotherapy is an occupational, speech, and physical therapy that uses the natural movement of horses to provide sensory and motor input. It is used for patients with mental and physical disorders—mostly children—to help improve sensory processes and neurological functions.”

 

The narration stops and my wide gaze finds Nicole’s. “Awesome, right? But it needs a ton of education—understandably—or I’d be all over this.

 

It’s amazing they’re able to do that. Being able to help those little ones is so special.”

 

Nicole leans forward until she can reach my arm, giving it a gentle squeeze. I’ve missed her. Ever since she got together with Justin, we’ve seen less of each other. I don’t blame her though, because they were made for each other, but I do miss our daily contact. 

 

Roommates since graduating, best friends, it’s hard to put a label on our friendship, but I’d be lost without her. I still can’t believe it’s been three years since we graduated college.

 

She smiles at me softly, her brown eyes studying me. “You know you do a lot for kids too, right?”

 

I huff out a frustrated breath of air. “Not anymore, no.”

 

She crosses her legs to get comfortable, grabbing one of the throw pillows for her lap. “But you will again, I have no doubt about it. I still want to go after your sleazeball ex-boss and rip off his balls for firing you at that kids’ show.”

 

That’s why she’ll always be my best friend. She gets so worked up and offended in my honor. 

 

Her hand flies in the air as she shakes it. “Downsizing, my ass. He made a move on you that you didn’t reciprocate, it’s as easy as that. But of course, his ego couldn’t take that. Asshole. But, Millie, you’re special. So very special. I don’t think you see how talented you are with kids. They absolutely adore you.”

 

“Yeah?” Familiar unease whenever my “job” is brought up washes through me, and even though I know Nicole is nothing like my family, I’m still waiting for the criticism, for the words that voice disapproval for my occupation—or as other people like to call it, my childish attempt at embarrassing my family.

 

Because apparently, I live for that. At least, according to the people who are supposed to be my biggest supporters. 

 

As if Nicole can sense the path my thoughts have taken me, she continues, “I haven’t seen a kid whose smile couldn’t light up the whole damn planet if it was possible. Your old boss will figure out soon enough that you were the biggest part of that show. He’s going to lose his mind when he hears that your dream show came knocking on your door.”

 

I snort. “Please tell me how you really feel.”

 

She pokes my side. “I mean it. I just know they’ll invite you to audition, and you’ll nail it. Even if I have to listen to you sing your nursery rhymes all day long.”

 

This time I chuckle, knowing exactly how much she likes to pretend to hate those. But I’ve overheard her humming them when she thinks she’s alone. “Thanks, Nic.” 

 

Her phone beeps again, and after giving my knee a pat, she picks it up. “Alrighty, sister from another mister, let’s get back to real jobs.”

 

“If I have to.”

 

She fixes me with a glare and points her finger at me. “Listen, I know you don’t really want to do any more nanny jobs after the drama with the last family, but I told my grandma you were looking for a job and she knows someone who’s looking for a nanny tout de suite.”

 

“Ugh.” I close my laptop and grab my gummy bears from the nightstand. “Does she have any more info?”

 

“It’s the son of one of her aqua aerobics friends, so it’s a legit job offer.”

 

“Legit, huh?” 

 

The corners of her mouth twitch. “Her words, not mine.”

 

We both crack up. Nicole’s grandma is hilarious and tries to stay trendy, and hip, as she likes to call it. “Do we have any more info? A possible jealous wife I need to know about?”

 

“I hope not, but I can ask her.” She taps on her phone a few times before looking at me. “You sure?”

 

I let out an exaggerated breath that portrays how I feel about the possibility of taking on a nanny job. “Yeah.”  

 

The mom of the last family I nannied for slapped me after accusing me of sleeping with her husband. Apparently, the jerk conveniently failed to mention that his affair was with his assistant, not me. The mom apologized, but at that point, it didn’t really matter anymore. The damage was done.

 

“If everything goes according to plan, you can quit in a few months when the people over at Kinder Street realize you’re the most perfect addition to their successful kids’ TV show.” Her smile is radiant and filled with promise.

 

It also makes me giggle. “You sound like one of their spokespeople.”

 

“What can I say? You’ve talked me into watching it enough times that I can see the appeal. To kids of course. Even though I’ll miss you like crazy.” 

 

“I know. I hate the thought of moving away too, but at least it’s in California.” I bite the head off a green gummy bear, my thoughts still stuck on her little speech. “They actually need to invite me to the audition first though.”

 

“They will.” She winks at me before lifting her phone up to her ear. “Hi, Nana.” 

 

The volume of her voice has risen a few levels like every time she talks to her grandma. She listens and nods. “Yes, yes, thank you. And, yes to Millie too. She has officially succumbed.”

 

They both laugh—her grandma easy to hear—and I shake my head. Her family might be on the crazy side at times, but they’ve welcomed me with open arms to family dinners and celebrations like I’m one of their own, so I’m not complaining. 

 

In fact, I’m so thankful. I never fear criticism when I’m with them. So different to my own family. I’d take that a hundred times over the thick tension that surrounds me like a suffocating cloud every time I step foot into my family home.

 

“Okay, Nana. Sounds fab. Thanks. Love you too. Bye.” Nicole wiggles her phone with a satisfied smile.

 

“Sooooooo? Are you going to tell me what she said?” I poke her arm for good measure, making her flinch.

 

“Not if you poke me again.” Beautiful black curls fall across her face as she laughs. 

 

With her olive-toned skin and dark features, she’s the opposite of me and my light complexion. In addition to my copper-colored hair, I live with an explosion of freckles across my nose and cheeks. 

 

“Nana will text me the number of her friend in a minute. I swear, this woman is even more technology-fixated than some of the teenagers these days. Sometimes I think she ignores phone calls on purpose, just so she can text.”

 

“She’s a strange one but awesome.”

 

“That she is.” Just then, her phone vibrates with a message on the screen. Nicole holds out her hand. “Go get your phone or something to write.”

 

I grab my phone and open a new contact. “Ready.”

 

“Okay. Her name is Patricia, and she’s Hottie McTottie’s mom.”

 

I pause and glance up at her. “Hottie who?”

 

“Hottie McTottie. That’s Nana’s nickname for him. She’s caught a glimpse of him once, and it looks like he left an impression.” She lifts a shoulder. 

 

I blink at her, not sure if this new info is good or bad. “Uh . . . okay.”

 

“You know Nana.” After slowly rattling off the number, she drops a kiss to my cheek and gets up. “I hate to run, but I’m meeting up with Justin.

You’ve got this, you hear me? It’s better than eating ramen noodles for the next few months. Let me know how it goes, okay?”

 

Groaning at her remark, I nod. “You just had to bring up the ramen noodles, didn’t you?”

 

She winks at me, knowing how much I hate them. “Better than becoming homeless.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. Go have fun with your boyfriend.” I shoo her away. “And thank you.”

 

“Always.” She blows me a kiss and leaves. 

 

I stare at the spot she just disappeared for a moment before lifting my phone to stare at the screen. 

 

Looks like I might interview for a job with Hottie McTottie. 

 

Let’s hope Nana had her prescription glasses filled correctly. 

 

Or maybe it’s better if she didn’t. 

 

The jury’s still out on that one.