The Matchmaker's Playbook by Rachel Van Dyken


  “Doesn’t the PT help you guys out with this?” I asked, trying to keep my hands focused on actually stretching her, instead of moving from her muscles to parts that didn’t need stretching.

  “He’s groped me three times,” she grumbled. “I think he takes his job a little too . . . personally.”

  “Kick him in the nuts next time. I’m sure you could blame it on your incredible reflexes.” I pushed harder as I completely straddled her one leg while lifting the other high above her head. My body was really enjoying the stretch, but not because it was relieving tension. If anything, it was creating it, and it wasn’t like workout clothing was very forgiving. All she had to do was look down and she’d see just how excited I was to help her out in any way possible, day and night, night and day.

  “Blake?” A deep voice interrupted our stretching session. I glanced up and dismissed David with a quick smirk, the kind guys give each other when they know the other dude is jealous and can’t do shit about it.

  “Oh, hey.” Blake leaned up on her elbows as I lowered her leg. “I didn’t see you there, David.”

  “You look . . .” He pointed at her body and swallowed slowly, his eyes drinking her in with obvious interest.

  “Exhausted,” she said. She burst out laughing and grabbed my hand. “Ian really knows how to work me.”

  I nearly burst out laughing at the rage that crossed David’s face. How dare I touch his friend! Just to piss him off, I kissed her hand and winked.

  “You know”—David leaned down into our space—“if you ever want any extra help . . . at the gym, you could always ask me.”

  “Oh.” Blake glanced between me and David. “That’s nice of you to offer, but—”

  “I think I’ve got it covered, David.” I leered suggestively.

  “Well, the offer still stands.” David pushed to his feet and slowly backed away. “It was great seeing you, Blake. You look . . . really good.”

  She glanced down at her tits.

  Which in turn made me and every other male within a fifty-mile radius join her in mutual admiration.

  “Thanks!”

  I nearly groaned when she popped her shoulders, making her chest bounce a bit. My hand twitched, along with my dick.

  “Uh.” Poor David looked about ready to swallow his tongue as he moved his hands to the front of his body and nodded. “Well, see ya.”

  Dirty little prick was covering his junk.

  He immediately went to the bench press and loaded 275 on the bar. Really, dude? He was going to be in a world of hurt if he didn’t at least warm up.

  But the Jolly Green Giant was sneakier than I expected. He didn’t pretend that we weren’t watching. If anything, he knew we would be.

  Sly Jolly Green Giant. I frowned as he started pumping the 275 like it wasn’t a big deal. He stood, chest puffed out, and glanced over at us as if to say, Oh, you’re still here? Watch this.

  He added another thirty pounds.

  He had no spot.

  Had to hand it to him. He was an idiot, but he was a strong idiot.

  “Wow,” Blake breathed. I glanced at her wide eyes as they bobbed up and down with the cadence of his pump. Oh, hell no.

  Grinding my teeth, I nearly mauled her right then and there. Was she seriously impressed with that douche? The line between personal and professional was blurring right before my very eyes, because I wanted nothing more than to pin her against the wall and sink myself into her.

  I was caught in a situation I’d never been in before. A situation where the girl and the guy doing their natural I’m man, watch me roar—oh my, look how strong you are thing actually made my chest hurt.

  I told Blake if it was necessary, I would kiss her.

  Suddenly, it became extremely necessary.

  To stake a claim.

  So, without allowing my brain to conjure up logical reasons why it was a bad idea, I tugged Blake to her feet and kissed her.

  The minute our mouths met, she gasped.

  I expected her to completely shut down, which would mean I’d have to turn her back to David so she didn’t give us away. Instead, she wrapped her arms around my neck, leaning her body into mine.

  And opened. Her. Mouth.

  She tasted like coffee and cinnamon. Holy shit. Someone should make a gum with that combo.

  I invaded her mouth, plunging, pillaging, basically planting my flag and saluting it, all the while running my hands down her back, my fingers digging into her skin, willing the heat between our bodies to singe the clothes so that I wouldn’t have to spend time ripping them from her body.

  Her hands twisted in my hair as I angled my head differently, teasing her mouth. Making love to her lips.

  A loud clang sounded.

  We broke apart.

  “Sorry,” David called from his side of the weight room. “Dropped some weight.”

  Sorry, my ass.

  Whatever. I didn’t care. Because I was the guy walking out with the girl.

  Not that she was mine.

  Or that she wouldn’t be his in a few days.

  Shit.

  “That was”—Blake ducked into my chest as I wrapped an arm around her—“a really great first kiss.”

  Damn it! I was ruining everything. I was her first kiss? Me? The certified whore? The guy she was paying? Not the one she was in love with.

  And that was the kicker.

  She was saving herself for someone important, while I’d never saved myself for anyone, ever.

  The thought haunted me the entire walk to my car.

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  Shell sat close to me while we pretended to study at the coffee shop. We exchanged a few hand grazes here, longing looks there, and a strategic pen drop, where it looked like I was staring down the front of her top.

  And boom—like magic, Jealous Barista appeared. Tom. Shit, I hated Tom. Not because he was an ass, but because he refused to move past the bossy “I know what’s best for you” face. And that was seriously starting to piss me off. It was the last phase, the one where the guy stopped being protective and moved on to actually doing shit about it.

  Shell didn’t deserve to be in limbo. She’d done a hell of a job, and if he couldn’t see her for the woman she was, then she and I were going to have to have a heart-to-heart, and I’d only done that with a client once in my career. I didn’t want it to start becoming a thing.

  Plus, the sooner I finished with Shell, the sooner I could . . .

  I frowned. What? Finish with Blake? Is that what I wanted? My teeth chewed the straw in my smoothie until it was useless.

  “Can I get you guys anything else?” Tom referenced both of us. He used plural references and all, but he was completely ignoring my existence, his lazy-ass brown eyes fully focused in on Shell.

  “Actually”—Shell yawned, stretching her arms above her neck and, like instructed, starting to massage the back of her neck—“I don’t suppose you moonlight as a massage therapist?”

  Well done. The line was delivered perfectly, like it had been rehearsed, which it was, considering the first four times she repeated it back to me she’d stuttered and nearly shouted “massage therapist,” then snorted with a nervous laugh. I hid my smile behind my pen as I scribbled down more nonsense about business ethics. The irony wasn’t lost on me, believe me.

  Tom smiled brightly. “No, but I’m still good with my hands.”

  I glanced up at his weak-looking hands. Doubtful, very doubtful, man. I was pretty sure, given the chance to rock her world with said hands, she’d most likely cross things off her grocery list while he still fumbled to get a rise out of her.

  Tom moved his hands to her neck and started massaging while Shell glanced up at me behind her long bangs and mouthed Yay!

  I pretended to be too immersed in my studying to care.

  Tom inched his way closer to her body, his chest pressed against her back. Then he leaned forward and whispered, “I’m clearing your schedule.”

  “You
’re clearing it?” Shell said, sounding surprised. “I don’t understand.”

  “Look at him.” I knew I was the “him” he was referencing. “I’m all over you, and he doesn’t even care.”

  He was right. I cared more about the cramp in my hand from writing and the ache in my back from hunching over my book.

  “Shh.” Shell shushed him. “He’s really great when you get to know him, and—”

  Showtime.

  “Shell,” I barked. “Let’s go.”

  I stood and started gathering my stuff.

  “What if she doesn’t wanna go with you?” Tom crossed his arms, just as expected, and his protective stance said it all: Touch her and I’m going to rip your head off. Or in his case, he’d conduct a poetry slam and use his words, because violence was so uncool. World peace. Save the whales. Soy milk. The end.

  “Shell”—I furrowed my brows—“what’s going on here?”

  She stood on wobbly legs. “Ian, it’s fine, we should go and—”

  “Shell!” Tom grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her protectively into his embrace. “He’s your study partner, not your boyfriend.”

  “Actually . . .” I smirked.

  Tom’s face turned a funny shade of purple. “Not anymore.”

  “Not anymore what?” Damn, my back ached. Why did it always take the guys this long to stake their claim? To finally plow the land, plant the flag, and sing the victory song.

  His eyes darted between Shell’s and mine.

  And then the anger disappeared. There we go. In, three, two, one.

  “Shell.” Tom grabbed her by the shoulders and turned her toward him. “I like you. I’ve always liked you.”

  Thank God, a confession!

  “Remember when you used to always order coffee but never tried it with a splash of milk and honey?”

  And there’s my exit. Someone save me from the “I’ve finally discovered it’s been you all along” speech.

  She nodded, tears pooling in her eyes.

  “And when you stayed really late, fell asleep on your book, and I woke you up and you said—”

  “Just one more cup!”

  They laughed in unison.

  Holy shit, pretending to be pissed was hard when I was on the verge of getting a headache as they traveled down courtship memory lane.

  “He doesn’t even know you like I do.” He pulled her closer to his chest, his hands twisting around hers like his fingers were trying to mate with her palms. “Leave him.”

  Yes. Please. For the love of God. Leave me.

  To her credit, Shell pretended to look torn as she lowered her head and then very slowly said, “Ian, I think you should go.”

  Triumph crossed Tom’s features.

  Victory pounded in my chest.

  And so the last round went to Tom . . . The last round always went to the guy unless the computer program said the guy was a complete douche. But the program, so far, had been flawless in helping us separate the winners from the losers. And as much as Tom irritated me, I knew deep down he really cared for Shell, and that if they made it through the next few months, they’d most likely get married in a year or so. They were both immature freshmen, both selfish, and it made sense that it took a while for them to actually get over their own insecurities before they could be good together.

  Six days in.

  And Shell had her man.

  “If this is what you want,” I said to Shell, picking up my books and stuffing them in my shoulder bag, “then I won’t stand in your way. Just remember, I’ll be here when this douche drops you, which”—I eyed him up and down in challenge—“he will.”

  “You need to leave.” He gripped her harder, tighter, his eyes possessive, furious. “Now.”

  And sealed.

  Jealousy was one thing; saving her was another. But the minute his eyes shifted from saving her, into admission, and finally into the stance of possession? Well, I may as well tell them congrats on their newfound relationship. I’d forged it the best way I could. Planted the seeds, watered them, and allowed them to grow.

  Unless a fire took hold and burned down the entire damn field, they’d be good.

  Another satisfied customer.

  I shoved past them and quickly got into my car, starting the engine and peeling out of the parking lot, to show how insulted I was at his stomping all over my territory.

  My text alert went off at the stoplight.

  Shell: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  The light was still red, so I texted her back.

  Ian: No prob. Remember the rules, but, be yourself. Invoice in mail. Please delete this number and all emails. 2 WM biz cards are in in your desk. If friends ask, you know what to do.

  Shell: You’re the best!

  I threw my phone and chuckled. “I know.”

  My cockiness didn’t last.

  Because a brief vision of Blake sending me that exact same text buzzed through my mind like a bad high.

  It would happen.

  And soon.

  We were four days in.

  I’d told her I needed a week, maybe two, depending on circumstances. Shit, and she was making such good progress. She probably didn’t even realize that she no longer hid behind her hair, or slumped in her chair during class. Her shoulders had straightened, she made eye contact regularly, and, damn, she looked hot.

  She was even opening up more to me, sharing likes and dislikes, which I typically wouldn’t encourage. But in her case she needed to learn how to get comfortable around guys, so I allowed it. It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I was eager to learn about her, or that the way she told animated stories that made me laugh.

  Damn, I inwardly groaned. The way things were going, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if David had already tried contacting her.

  My mind went over all the scenarios. She hadn’t texted me all day. Did that mean he was making contact? Did she even need me anymore? Why did it matter? Then again, she could be sick. Shit, she probably had the flu or something and was embarrassed because she puked all over everything and couldn’t make it to the phone without the room spinning. And here I was, being an ass.

  At the next stoplight I texted her.

  Nothing.

  Drumming my hands against the wheel, I cursed and made a U-turn toward Gabi’s place. I was just going to check on her. Just once. And not because I was paranoid, but because I was worried.

  An irritating voice inside my head reminded me that I’d never been worried about a client before; I’d never given them a second thought. But I ignored that voice, because it was in direct opposition to what I was feeling everywhere else in my body.

  That maybe Blake needed me.

  Or maybe . . . I needed her.

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  By the time I’d pulled up to the house, I’d convinced myself that Blake had only twenty-four hours to live, and the only way for her to survive was for me to have lots and lots of sweaty sex with her.

  Somehow in my daydream I’d gone from washed-up NFL player to sporting a flight suit and aviators, like Tom Cruise in Top Gun.

  And since she was a nursing major, a personal favorite when it came to my erotic fantasies, she was wearing a naughty nurse outfit, with thigh-highs and red heels.

  My body tightened painfully as I tried in vain to keep myself from exploding from my own stupid fantasies. How had I gone from wanting to check in on her to wanting to be in her?

  Damn, my imagination was graphic.

  I jogged up to the house, let myself in, and yelled, “Gabi! Blake! Serena! Anyone home?”

  “Geez.” Gabi rose from the couch looking like a zombie. “Some people are trying to sleep.”

  “Sorry, sport.” I walked over and ruffled her hair. “Didn’t see you there. Cute hair. You joining the nice homeless people under the bridge later for an orgy?”

  Her catlike eyes narrowed as she snorted in disgust and weakly pushed against my chest. “I’m sick, you ass.”
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  I jumped to my feet and stumbled back, colliding with the lamp and sending it to the floor with a loud clang.

  “Oh, please!” She blew her nose into a Kleenex, and the bun on the top of her head bobbed with a jerk. “You’re lucky you don’t have the clap from all the sex you have! And you’re afraid of a little cold.”

  “I really hate germs,” I pointed out, setting the lamp back on the table but still keeping a good distance between me and the diseased.

  Gabi tossed the Kleenex at my face. I ducked and moved farther out of the way.

  “Ian,” she growled. “You sleep with germs all the time.”

  “I Lysol them before I sleep with them. It’s part of the procedure before I bang them against the wall and allow them the honor of a blow job.”

  She scowled.

  “Or bed . . .”

  Her eyes narrowed even further.

  “Though last week it was a door.”

  She groaned.

  “We broke it.”

  “Enough!” More snot-rags flew in my direction. “Why are you here?”

  “I, uh.” Shit, I couldn’t lie to my best friend. “I had an idea for Blake, and texting while driving is frowned upon. Haven’t you seen the billboards?”

  “You couldn’t just call her?”

  “I never call clients unless absolutely necessary.”

  I never do at-home check-ins either, but . . .

  “She’s upstairs. A pipe broke in the bathroom, and water was everywhere. I was going to call the plumber, but she said something about her friend’s dad being a plumber, and suddenly some tall dude showed up and said he could fix it in a jiffy.” Gabi lay back down. “Who says ‘jiffy’ anymore?”

  “Good thing you can fix pipes!” Blake’s voice filtered from upstairs.

  “I clean them too.” The familiar voice laughed.

  “David.” I spat his name.

  “Who?” Gabi tried getting up, but I smothered her mouth with a pillow and shushed her. She flailed underneath it. “Can’t. Breathe.”

  “Stop talking or I really will suffocate you,” I hissed, dropping the pillow to the floor while I kneeled next to the couch, my ears ringing with static as I tried to listen to their conversation.

 
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