The Matchmaker's Playbook by Rachel Van Dyken

  Lex chuckled. “On that note, I’ve rearranged your schedule and taken on two of your clients to free up some time for”—he motioned to the screen—“this.”

  “It can’t be that bad.”

  “No,” Lex said. “Actually, it’s worse.”

  “You mean she’s a little virgin who’s never kissed a man, can’t spell the word “orgasm,” blushes when people talk about sex, and believes in love at first sight?”

  Lex remained silent.

  “Shit,” I muttered. “Did you print off the questionnaire?”

  He thrust a stack of papers in my face. “Check out number fifteen.”

  My eyes roamed across the questions until I found fifteen through twenty, which pertained to relationships: What would you wear on a first date? Her answer: Something comfortable. I tend to sweat when I’m nervous, so maybe a baggy sweatshirt? Or a hat. Hats are good because they look mysterious. I had a sudden vision of Blake in a giant pink hoodie and a Yankees hat that flattened her ears.

  “Number sixteen’s my favorite.” Lex smirked, putting his hands behind his head as he watched me read.

  My first kiss was . . . Her answer: Hopefully it will be great! She had typed in a smiley face with a heart emoji. This did not bode well for my workload. I barely managed to keep myself from groaning out loud.

  I sighed. “No wonder she kissed my cheek.”

  “She what?” Lex nearly fell out of his chair. “She kissed you . . . where?”

  I pointed to my left cheek.

  Lex stared hard, like he was still having a hard time believing it. “No shit?”

  “She grew up in some faraway town named Riggins.”

  “Dude, need I remind you that my grandparents had a ranch in Montana with about fifty thousand head of cattle. There are no excuses for that.”

  “I’m meeting with her tonight.” I sat on the couch next to Lex, my eyes furiously reading over her answers. “Did you want to do the rest of the testing with her, or—?”

  “Oh, no.” Laughing, Lex threw his hands into the air. “That’s all you, bro. I just took two of your clients, meaning my schedule’s about to get just as shitty as yours. I won’t have time to do the dirty work anymore.”

  The dirty work always included a quick kissing test followed by a few very personal questions involving sex.

  Lex had never minded it before.

  And I sure as hell didn’t want to sit in front of Blake with a freaking diagram of the human body and ask her to point to erogenous zones.

  “Hey.” Lex slapped me on the back. “Look at the positive side.”

  “Which is?”

  “Marissa called.” He stood. “She wants a little TLC, and according to your schedule, you’ve got around two hours to kill before you’re balls-deep in Sex Ed 101.”

  “Remind me who Marissa is?”

  “Red tank top. Last week at Dante’s, she tried to grope you. I intervened. She was too drunk and sloppy. Gave her your phone number.”

  I shook my head. I seriously didn’t remember her.

  Lex sighed. “Big boobs?”

  I frowned.

  “Her jeans were painted onto her body, and she was wearing brown cowboy boots.”

  “Ohhh.” I nodded slowly. “Damn. I remember the boots, because they made her ass look huge, in a very inviting please-spend-some-quality-time-with-me way.”

  Lex laughed and slapped a piece of paper in my hand. “Cell number, e-mail, and the usual background check. She’s clean, but be careful. According to her Facebook profile, her only goal in life is to save the wolves.”

  “Well.” I grinned shamelessly. “We do need saving.”

  “That we do.” He joined me in laughter while I quickly dialed her number.

  “Hello?” She picked up on the first ring. Rookie mistake. Did no girl understand? Third ring. Always wait until the third ring. If you answered on the first, it meant you were desperate. The second basically said the same thing and gave the guy the idea that you were sitting around stalking his Instagram just waiting for him to call.

  “Marissa,” I rasped out. “It’s Ian.”

  “Hi!” I pulled the phone from my ear. I’d already had enough shrieking for the day. “How are you?”

  “Free. You?”

  She let out a throaty laugh. “As free as you want me to be.”

  “Where do you live?”

  “Why can’t we go to your place?”

  “Sorry.” I winced. “It’s getting remodeled. Crazy, but a wolf actually got loose from the zoo and somehow made its way into my home. I saved it from getting shot, using my own tranq gun, but the damage to the floor was already done. They have such sharp claws, you know?”

  I could almost feel her nodding her head in agreement while I snatched my keys from the counter and walked out into the rainy weather.

  “I just love wolves.”

  “Aren’t they the greatest?” I said as I rolled my eyes. “Now, what did you say your address was, sweetheart?” Shit, I’d already forgotten her name. Melissa? Manila?

  She fired off an address a good twenty-minute drive away, so by the time I got to her house I’d only have an hour before I needed to make the trek back to campus to meet up with Blake. Shit. I still had to check in with Shell too.

  “Ian? You there?”

  “No, but you will be soon,” I joked, then hung up the phone.

  The minute I got to her house on Queen Anne Hill, I smiled. If her house didn’t just scream sorority girl . . .

  I knocked.

  She answered the door before I could knock again.

  Did no woman understand the power of three?

  I hid a wince. Too eager. But for this visit? It didn’t matter.

  Remember, I slept with stupid girls, not sad ones. And by the look of her? She was too brainless to feel such an emotion—you know, unless someone shot a wolf. Then I’m sure she’d be crying all over the place.

  “That was fast.” Her chest heaved as she opened the door for me to walk in.

  I sniffed. “Did you bake cookies?”

  She nodded, tucking her hair behind her ear. “I thought you might be hungry.”

  “Oh, I am,” I said never taking my eyes off her mouth. “And if it’s okay with you, I’d like to take a bite.”

  “Sure!” She started moving away, I assumed in the direction of the kitchen. I tugged her back against my already needy body.

  “I wasn’t talking about the cookies.”

  Her body softened against mine. “You weren’t?”

  I nibbled the side of her neck. “Hell no. I think I’ve found something sweeter.”

  She moaned, rubbing her body against me.

  “Bedroom?” I panted, already pulling her shirt off.

  “Last room on the”—I flicked her bra off—“left.”

  “Good.” I tossed my shirt onto the floor, then moved her backward, in the direction of her room. “Because I only have one hour, and I really, really want to make it worth our while.”

  “I’m sure you will.”

  “Believe me.” I pulled back and gazed into her brown eyes. “I always do.”

  She yelped as my mouth met hers in a frenzied kiss. “Mmm,” I hummed against her lips. Then I whispered, “Were those cookies chocolate-chip?”

  “Yes.” More breathless moaning as I quickly tugged at her leggings and discarded them, along with the rest of my clothes.

  “You don’t waste time.” Her lips were puffy from my hard kisses. Her cropped blonde hair was pushed away from her heavily made-up face.

  “Time . . . is everything.” I leaned down and kissed her harder, then lifted her by the hips and wrapped her legs around me.

  “Oh.” She bucked beneath me. “Oh wow.”

  I licked and tasted down her neck as I let my fingers do most of the work—the work I didn’t have time or the energy for. She fell apart in my arms five minutes later.

  Ten minutes after that, she was screaming my name while her headbo
ard nearly took out the wall.

  And fifteen minutes after that, my sweaty body collapsed onto hers while I whispered, “Did I mention I really love wolves?”

  “Shell.” My voice was calm, but my head was pounding. I was starving, and the last thing I wanted to do was argue with a client about why I was right and she was wrong. “I don’t give a damn if he’s outside your room serenading you with Drake. Don’t let him in.”

  “But”—her voice was whiny; hell, why were they always whiny?—“he’s being so sweet!”

  “Guys are always sweet when they want a piece of ass,” I grumbled, then sniffed the air. Damn, what kind of perfume did Wolf Girl wear? I smelled like I’d just walked into a confused saleslady in the cosmetic department, who’d squirted me with five different brands of “I’m easy.” You pay me to help you succeed. You won’t succeed with him if you keep trying to break the rules. The rules were established in order to benefit you, not hurt you.”

  “I know.” Shell’s voice shook. “I just . . . it’s hard.”

  “It will be worth it”—I pulled into the closest parking spot on campus I could find, which basically meant I was still going to have to jog three miles in order to meet Blake on time—“I promise.”

  She was silent, then whispered a thanks before ending the call.

  I’d broken the rule of phone calls with Shell only because her text gave me the assumption that she was about two seconds away from tossing her body out the window into Jealous Barista’s waiting arms.

  Clients always argued when things were going right. When things went bad? When they realized that Prince Charming was a jackass? They cried. Loads of tears. During those times I gave them numbers to a few counselors on campus and made sure they understood that, although I was sorry, I wasn’t their girlfriend. I refused to be the sounding board when they started lamenting about why all men were the spawn of Satan.

  I turned off the car and raced across campus. I was meeting Blake at the Husky Union Building. I was starved, so I was going to officially break one of my own rules—I was going to share a meal with her.

  Maybe I should have taken some of the cookies from—what the hell was her name again? I closed my eyes as my mind did a quick rewind of a few hours ago when I’d pounded her against the wall, she screamed my name, and I yelled . . . “Marissa.”

  I nodded. Damn hard name to remember. She’d offered me cookies again upon my exit, but girls only did that as a way to lure you back in. Offering a guy a cookie after sex is like telling a kid to pee before you put them in the car for a long road trip. Suddenly they’re all Yeah, I really do need to go to the bathroom. You plant the thought.

  Ergo, had I taken Marissa’s cookie, it would have planted the thought that I wanted more of her cookies. And the last thing I needed was to allow her, or any girl for that matter, to think I was committing just because I had a sweet tooth.

  Just the thought of it had my body buzzing with warning.

  But eating with Blake was different. It wasn’t a booty call.

  And it sure as hell wasn’t a date.

  I never ate with clients. I shared a coffee, had a beer, but never food. Food meant something else was going on, something deeper. It was like the minute food was brought to the table, a girl’s entire demeanor changed, as if the fact that I bought her steak meant I could keep it in my pants and wanted to get into hers for more than one night.

  That rule I’d learned the hard way.

  Lex, sorry bastard, was still traumatized over his last date over a year ago. He still refused to even do so much as a happy hour with a client. It was coffee or water. Shocking that he and I almost always got the same results when we took on clients. My methods were gentler, as opposed to Lex’s. Let’s just say he had a hell of a bedside manner.

  Sweat pooled at the back of my neck as I pulled off my leather jacket, throwing it over my arm, and opened the door to the HUB. This was Blake, I reminded myself. There was absolutely no worry of her having higher expectations based on meal-sharing. She could hardly tolerate being in the same room with me. Safe to say my Indian did not like her Pilgrim.

  I let out a sigh, and there she was, checking her phone, her shoulders hunched, flip-flops visible—only this time the girl was actually sporting a pink scrunchie.

  Did they still sell those things? Or was she seriously just buying shit off eBay to mess with my head?

  “Blake?” I called her over, crooking my finger in her direction. I wanted to see how she walked toward me, how she approached men. With a shrug, she shoved her phone into the deep, baggy pockets of her basketball shorts and stiffly made her way over. Walking like she had a stick up her ass.

  Her hair was pulled tight into a low ponytail, making her face look like it would hurt to smile.

  Without acknowledging that she was in front of me, I swore and tugged her hair free.

  “Hey!” Her head jerked back with the force of my tug. “Ouch!”

  “No.” I held the scrunchie in between us. “Just . . . no.”


  “Never,” I said slowly as I launched it off my finger, rubber-band style, in the general direction of the trash can. It missed by a few inches. Meaning some poor soul was possibly going to discover that sad, ugly little treasure and put it to good use. Let’s hope not, for everyone’s sake—for the sake of eyes everywhere. “May it rest in peace.”

  Blake hunched her shoulders as a crowd of guys stomped all over it. “It’s the only thing that keeps my hair back.”

  “We’ll find you something else that doesn’t make you look like you starred in Napoleon Dynamite, okay?”

  Her eyes narrowed.

  I staggered back a few steps. “Whoa.” Gripping her shoulders, I leaned in. “Did you change eye color overnight?”

  “No.” Her eyes widened. “Why?” She pressed her hands to her face. “I didn’t get much sleep last night. My eyes are probably bloodshot.”

  Actually, just the opposite. They were gorgeous, clearer than they’d been in class. She had a bit of green that outlined the irises. It was . . . mesmerizing.

  “Ian?” Blake whispered. “What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing.” I jerked back and forced a laugh. “Just . . . let’s go. I could eat a herd of cows right now.” I clicked open a text from Lex and scanned the busy eating areas.

  Lex: Every night after practice he eats at Asian Fusion. Gross. You’ll find General Tso at his usual spot.

  “How’s Asian sound?” I didn’t wait for Blake to answer, just steered her toward the line and fired off an order for fried rice and something that looked like chicken but had a gray tint to it. “What do you want?”

  “Nothing,” Blake said quickly.

  I frowned. “You mean you want no food? None at all?”

  “I, uh”—she blushed—“didn’t bring my purse with me.”

  My mouth dropped open. “Holy shit . . . you own a purse?”

  “Very funny.”

  “Is it Guess?” I grinned.

  She punched me in the arm while I kept guessing. “Tommy Hilfiger? Calvin Klein? Oh damn. Please, please tell me it’s actually a Caboodles case masquerading as a purse. That would make my entire week.”

  At Blake’s blush, I knew I was close.

  “Coach.” I sighed. “We’ll get you a Coach purse.”

  “But that doesn’t match my clothes.”

  I eyed her up and down and forced my lips shut so I wouldn’t say something else offensive. To be honest, I was damn curious about what would match her clothes and equally horrified with the possibility that she’d have an answer.

  “What?” She put her hands on her hips.

  “Food or no food?” The guy at the register looked like he was ready to quit.

  “I already said I don’t have my purse.”

  “We know,” the dude said in a bitter tone. “But I’m sure Daddy Warbucks can spot you a five.”

  I rolled my eyes. “Are you hungry?”

  She nodde

  I waved my hand over the register like magic. “So you eat. I’d order,” I whispered out of the corner of my mouth, “before he spits in your food.”

  “Egg rolls.” She nodded again. “Four.”

  “Finally,” he muttered, keying it into his register and taking my twenty. The minute money exchanged hands, I felt the tingle again.

  It wasn’t a good tingle, like the kind you feel postorgasm.

  It was a bad tingle, like the kind you get when a girl reaches for your balls in an unfriendly manner.

  With a heavy swallow, I moved down the line, frowning. Was it possible? Was that meal the first one I’d purchased for a woman since high school?

  I stared at my receipt like it was a death sentence, then quickly shoved it into my pocket. Out of sight, out of mind. It wasn’t a date. I wasn’t feeding Blake because I liked her. I was feeding her simply because I was hungry, and I felt guilty eating in front of her.

  “Are you okay?” Blake touched my shoulder.

  “Of course.” Keeping my cool, I waited for the food, then carried our tray toward the back table. As we made our way through the scattered crowd, whispering commenced. I never tired of it.

  Of the way girls stared at my body.

  The vibe they gave off when I walked a little too close, letting them get a good whiff of my cologne, or gave them the “accidental touch” as I rubbed my body against theirs in order to get to my spot.

  “You’re disgusting,” Blake announced once we sat.

  Steam billowed off the food. “Is that how you repay your pimp during your hungry time of need?”

  “Not my pimp.” She scowled. “And how can you do that? Lead girls on like that? Every single one of them is still staring, whispering, staring more. One of them took a picture.”

  “Two, actually,” I said with a shrug.

  “Why?” Blake shoved my plate off the tray. “It’s not like you’re famous or something.”

  My hands froze.

  Actually, my entire body seized. It wasn’t necessarily in regret. But she touched on a sore subject, one she apparently didn’t know existed. The damn phantom pain returned. Clearing my throat, I reached for my bottled water while Blake continued to stare me down like I was a puzzle that needed solving.

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