NATHAN ELLISON RAYMOND Dunkle couldn’t catch a break.
He raced out of his lab, late again, his mind a bit foggy from an intense brainstorming session in the pursuit of a groundbreaking physics formula to transform advanced propulsion. He eased his Tesla through crowds of city traffic and tried not to panic. This event could be the turning point in his life, and he refused to miss it. What if his future wife was there right now, meeting some other man because he was stuck at work? Again.
Ned clamped down on his impatience and moved another few inches. He was tired of his social life revolving around his lab partner, Wayne, and his brother, Connor. Ever since he left NASA to dedicate his time to getting the private sector into space travel, his days had melded together in a long line of formulas and research. The weekly golf trips with his friends fell apart. His dating life, slow to begin with, ground to a big fat zero. Three months ago, he had celebrated his thirty-second birthday and realized he had no one to invite over. A small cake appeared in the lab and after Wayne hummed a few bars of Happy Birthday, they got back to work.
That’s when he made his decision to change.
Ned pulled into the city limits welcoming visitors to Verily and perused the street for a space. The brightly lit shops lining the sidewalk overlooked the Hudson River and gave off a quaint charm that embraced visitors, bringing them into the fold of the welcoming area. His brother had laughed when he told him about the upcoming speed-dating mixer, but Connor didn’t believe in settling down with one woman. Years of watching his brother date endlessly with no commitment in sight depressed him. The whole catch-and-release repetition just seemed . . . empty.
Ned craved a real connection with a woman, someone he could share his life with. He had no interest in bar hopping or bed hopping. Marriage equaled all the things he lacked: comfort, sex, and companionship. Once Ned made decisions, he dedicated all of his time and energy into the steps needed to reach his goal, and this newest idea was no exception. After six weeks of intense research, he was ready.
He pulled into a space and turned off the ignition. Grabbing a pack of breath mints from the glove compartment, he popped one in his mouth, and wiped his hands down his khaki pants. Crap. He’d forgotten to change out of his white coat, and the coffee stain from this morning was prominently placed on his chest. He spit on his finger and tried to scrub the fabric, but the brown splotch only worsened. Could he take the coat off entirely? He yanked one shoulder down and spotted the wrinkled cotton shirt crushed underneath. Nah, leave it on. The hell with it. He didn’t want a woman who only cared about clothes or appearances anyway.
He pushed his glasses up his nose and peered into the driver’s side mirror. The healthy brown glow he’d hoped to sport had gone horribly wrong. Damn bronzer. Golf season hadn’t started yet, and his white skin had thrown him into a panic this morning. He knew women liked the beachy look, so he bought the self-tanner at lunch and applied it at work. He’d followed the instructions perfectly, but instead of a sun-kissed glow, he got carrot orange. Ned rubbed at his face frantically and tried to move the color around. It wasn’t that bad. Wayne had just glanced over at Nate after lunch, and when pressed, said he looked fine. Of course, he’d been wrapped up in the velocity testing, so maybe he hadn’t really studied him.
Holding back a groan, he got out of the car and headed toward the restaurant called Cosmos. At least the mixer wasn’t in a bar. He hurried his pace, tripped over the uneven sidewalk, and finally found his destination. The warm air hit him full force, with the delicious scents of garlic, tomato, and fresh bread. The restaurant was decorated in tasteful Tuscan colors, and soft lighting dimly illuminated various tables in the main room. Timers sat on each table, and people mingled with drinks and appetizers in hand.
He fought the urge to turn around and walk back out, but he wasn’t a failure, and he didn’t intend to start now. He’d studied for this. It was his moment.
“May I help you?”
He looked down, and a young girl holding a clipboard smiled up at him. “Yes. Ned Dunkle. I signed up.”
“Of course.” She crossed his name off and gave him a ticket. “Welcome to our speed-dating mixer at Kinnections. You have just enough time to get a drink at the bar. Here’s your number. You’ll be starting with table nine. Five minutes maximum at each table, and here’s a sheet with all the participants. If you like someone, note down the name, and at the end of the mixer, we’ll introduce the people who are interested in each other.”
“Great.” He took the ticket into his sweaty hand and fought his way to the bar. Laughter and easy conversation drifted around him, along with the musky scent of perfume and something stronger. Was that him? He ducked his head and did a quick sniff. Oh yeah, way too much cologne. He’d liked the scent at home, but now he felt lost in the piney, woodsy tones it promised on the label. Oh, well. No one would notice.
He scanned his surroundings and got into game mode. That’s when he saw her.
The woman moved across the room, practically shimmering with energy and poise. Stopping now and then to chat with different people, she claimed the attention of male and female participants alike. Her whiskey gold eyes dominated her face, and thick, wavy hair tumbled past her shoulders in a deep caramel color. Her hot pink suit matched her nails. But his attention kept getting dragged to her shoes. Four-inch heels, open toe, pink with silver rhinestones. The silver-cuffed toe ring only emphasized her bubblegum-colored toenails.
She clearly was the type of woman who got any man she desired, owned her sexuality, and called the shots. Her husky laugh vibrated in his ears, dove into his gut, and squeezed. It was a sound full of life and the potential for fun. A wave of longing hit him, and he tamped down a laugh. Yeah, right. Not in this lifetime. Still, if she were involved in the speed-dating event, he’d be able to meet and talk to her for five minutes. That alone would make the whole evening worthwhile.
Not that he wanted a woman who was just beautiful. He learned that lesson well and didn’t need a repeat. Not in this lifetime.
A buzzer sounded, and everyone ran to their tables.
He headed toward number nine and settled down with a glass of house wine he didn’t like but was easy for the bartender to make. His normal drink usually took too much time to explain. A petite blonde slid into the seat, glanced up, and did a tiny recoil. He tried not to rub his face and make the orange more noticeable.
The timer chirped.
“Hi, I’m Naomi.”
He took a deep breath. “Hi, Naomi. My name is Ned.”
“Hi, Ned. So, what do you do?”
“Umm, I’m an aerospace engineer.”
“Oh, like planes? Do you own a plane?”
He shook his head. “No, rockets.”
Her eyes widened in excitement. “You own a real rocket ship?”
“No, no. I work on rocket ships. Well, I work on prototypes. Research stuff. I don’t own one.”
“Oh.” She looked disappointed. “I like to fly places. How about a jet? Do you own one of those?”
He tried to focus, but the conversation was heading into twilight zone territory and a full minute hadn’t even gone by. “Uh, I’m sorry, I don’t. I have a car.”
She lit up. “I love hot cars. Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Hummers. Did you see that movie The Fast and the Furious? They had some really hot cars.”
“No, I missed out on that film.”
“Do you smell that?” She crinkled her nose and glanced around. “Is that cologne?”
“I guess some guy put on too much.”
“Ick, I hate when that happens.”
Unfortunately, she refocused on the original bizarre conversation. “A man’s car tells a lot about him. People cite that horoscope junk all the time, but they don’t realize that the choice of vehicle really defines a person.”
“I don’t think I realized how important it was.”
“What type of car do you drive, Ned?”
“A Tesla. It won the award for the safest car in America and has zero emissions. The cutting edge of efficiency and cost savings.”
She sighed. “I drive a Mitsubishi convertible Eclipse in cherry red. I don’t think I can date or respect a man who drives an economy vehicle. We just won’t have the compatible energy needed in a relationship, especially in the bedroom.” She gave him a sunny smile. “Nice to meet you, though.”
Already a little shaken, Ned rose and made his way to the next table. A tall brunette with glasses studied him carefully and waited for the timer to begin. “I’m Sandra. I’m an elementary school teacher, divorced, no children, and live by myself.”
Ned relaxed when she paused. This, he could handle. An intelligent, direct conversation to discover if there was any chemistry or connection. “Hi, I’m Ned. I work as an engineer and I’ve never been married.”
“Do you have issues?”
He laughed, enjoying her sense of humor, and then realized she was frowning at him and dead serious. “Oh. Probably. Doesn’t everyone have issues?”
“I don’t. You have a stain on your shirt.”
He swiped at it and blocked it with his arm. “Sorry. I was rushing out of the lab and running late.”
She pointed a finger at him. “You’re a workaholic.”
He shifted in his chair. “I do work a lot, but I’m looking to change that. Do you—do you enjoy your job?”
“Not really. The Common Core stuff wrecked everything, the sixth graders are hormonal and impossible to control, and they want to take away most of our benefits.”
“I’m sorry. Are you thinking of switching careers?”
“In this economy?” She looked at him as if his lab coat had suddenly caught fire. “No way. I have to deal with it, so I made a schedule to keep conflict to a minimum. Get pregnant in eighteen months so I can extend my leave to a full year. Have the second child exactly fourteen months later, so they’re close in age. But I don’t want to deal with any workaholics. My father was one, and my parents ended up divorced. Have you always been selfish?”
“Huh? No, if I had a family, I wouldn’t work as much. Let me ask you—”
“Sorry, I’m not taking a risk with you. I think our time is up.”
At table eleven, he knocked over his partner’s cocktail and stained her pretty red dress. At table twelve, he met a catalog model who dismissed him immediately and gave him a lecture on the perils of skin cancer from sunbathing. He drained his bad wine, but there was no time to get another because those five minutes dragged on endlessly and melded into another session more horrifying than the last.
Finally, at table fifteen, he scored.
Debra had a sweet smile, long red hair, and a milky white complexion. He introduced himself. “It’s lovely to meet you, Ned. Meeting people is so hard nowadays, we’re reduced to embarrassing ways to find one another.”
His shoulders relaxed slightly. “Yes, I agree. Though I’m surprised you would have any problems.”
She laughed and ducked her head. “Thanks. So, instead of asking a bunch of inane questions for five minutes, I composed a few fun ways to see what personality types we are.”
“Very creative.” He’d read about this in Cosmopolitan magazine and completed dozens of surveys regarding the type of man women truly craved. His skin tingled with excitement. “Ask away.”
“Wonderful!” She drew out a stack of index cards and shot him a playful expression. “Question one, what type of first date would you take me on to impress me?”
Yes. He knew this one cold. He tried to keep the triumph out of his face. “I’d take you to the New York Public Library in Manhattan and find out what type of books you like to read. Then have a picnic in the park afterward.”
Disappointment gleamed in her brown eyes. “Oh. A library is free, Ned. And a picnic is cheap. No limo? Broadway play? How about the revolving restaurant on top of the Marriott Marquis? Are you afraid to spend money on a woman?”
What was she talking about? Cosmo always said a man needed to be romantic. Unique. Money didn’t impress; thoughtfulness and originality did. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking. How about your next question?”
She perked back up and slid to her next note card. “If you were to compliment one part of me, what would that be?”
This one he knew! Marie Claire talked about it constantly. “Your smile,” he said.
Her lower lip kicked out. “Are you kidding me? Do I work out at the gym twenty-four-seven so you can comment on my teeth?”
His ears roaring, he blinked in sheer confusion. This could not be happening. The last time he took Connor’s advice and commented on a woman’s body, he’d gotten a drink thrown in his face. “I didn’t think women liked when men did that.”
She rolled her eyes. “That’s ridiculous, we live for it.”
Ned made a mental note to go back to bodily compliments. “Do I get one more shot?”
“Last one. This is the most important. If we got in a fight, how would you apologize?”
Finally. There was no way to get this one wrong. “I’d tell you straight out I was sorry and that I’d work on fixing what I can so we don’t have the same issue in the future.” Hello, Self magazine. Communication and stating a verbal apology was a number one priority with women.
Debra stuffed her cards into her purse and gave him a look. “Why the hell would I care if you’re sorry? Actions speak louder than words. I want jewelry. Sorry, Ned, you’re just not for me.”
By the time he hit table twenty, he was aggravated, tired, thirsty, and disillusioned. Most cared about his appearance, money, or man toys, and all he wanted to do was get serious and leave all the junk behind. Despite weeks of reading women’s magazines, he’d flunked every five-minute session.
Finally, he reached the last date. The woman seemed nice enough, but he’d been here before. No more. This time, he was running the date his way.
“Hi, I’m Bernadette.”
He leaned forward, placed his elbows on the table, and narrowed his gaze. “Hi, I’m Ned. When will you be ready to be married and have kids?”
The woman jerked back. She seemed shocked, but he bet she was just pretending. He hadn’t met a female without an agenda this whole night. “Umm, I’m not sure. I want to be in love with the right person. Then marriage and kids can come later.”
Hmm, good answer. Ned raised the stakes. “How long? A month? Two? You’re already past thirty, and statistics show once your eggs reach thirty-five, your fertility starts declining, and chances of a healthy baby decrease by forty percent.”
Was that a moan? He was only citing statistics straight from Glamour or Self. He forgot which one. Her lower lip trembled but he had her full attention. “I’m only twenty-nine,” the woman whispered.
“Right on the precipice. I would rethink your plan if you want to birth at least two children. You do want children, right?”
Another small moan. “Yes, I’ve always dreamed of having children.”
Finally. A woman who knew what she wanted. He relaxed. “Me, too. I think we have similar philosophies. It’s been a tough night, but I’m glad we finally met. I think I’m supposed to wait till the end, but since this worked out so well, how about dinner Friday night?”
The woman pressed a trembling hand to her mouth. She blinked rapidly. Were those tears? What was going on?
He opened his mouth to question her, but a vision in hot pink swarmed into his line of sight.
She was even more stunning close up. Her lips held just a touch of glossy moisture, and his nostrils kicked in at the scent of sandalwood and cinnamon. She laid a hand on Bernadette’s arm and whispered something in her ear. Bernadette nodded, swiped at her eyes, and stood up. Dream woman patted her back, pointed her in the other direction, and watched her walk away.
“Hey, we were setting up a date.”
Dream woman swung around and met his gaze head on.
He stilled. Those golden eyes sucked him in deep and held on tight. He struggled for breath, entranced by the white-hot heat and fury beating from her in waves. Deliberately, she placed her palms flat on the table and leaned in.
“I want to talk to you.”
His spirits perked up. “Great. Did the clock start?”
“Forget the clock. I need to finish up a few things and then I’d like to have a chat. I’ll meet you at the diner next door in ten minutes.”
No way. She was interested in him? Odd, she looked a bit intense for having just asked him out, but he’d go anywhere with her. Maybe this horrific night would turn out alright. “Don’t I need to fill out my request sheet first?”
Was it possible she looked even more furious? Her expression fascinated him, all sharp angles and soft skin. Funny, if you took away each of her features, it seemed as if her face was too big for her body, but when put together, she had movie-star looks. Like Julia Roberts. A long, gazelle-like structure, highly cut cheekbones, thick brows, huge eyes. “I’m sure that sheet won’t be needed. I’ll see you at the diner.”
She pulled back, swiveled on her four-inch pink heels, and disappeared into the crowd.
Ned dumped the sheet. Other than Bernadette, the event had been a bust. But his date with Dream Woman was everything he’d hoped for. Who needed long term if he could enjoy her for one perfect night? He’d have just enough time to pop another breath mint and rub a tissue over his orange face to see if he could lighten it up.
Ned headed toward the diner.