Chapter One

Veronica Welch’s hands were full. Literally. She heard that godforsaken ding again, but the elevator was so packed, if she tried to juggle her coffee and briefcase to look at her phone, she’d surely elbow someone in the ribs. It didn’t matter. She knew what the little ding was. Damn Bea and her snarky notifications.

The offices of Belden & Snow were buzzing with activity already. Veronica hated walking in late. It gave the wrong impression. It hardly mattered that she hadn’t left the office until eleven the night before. The partners didn’t know that. They also didn’t care. They’d probably been at home, having a cocktail with their spouses while they watched the evening news. That would be Veronica soon too—minus the spouse part. But making partner would happen within the year. Everything was running right on schedule. Just one more sleepless year (tops!), and it would be Belden, Snow, Miller, Baker, Anderson, Sheffield and Welch. Okay. She knew she wouldn’t be a named partner just yet, but it really didn’t matter anyway. Just ask Miller, Baker, Anderson, and Sheffield.

“Good morning, V!”

Well, at least someone felt perky this morning. Veronica traded her lukewarm to-go cup of coffee for the steaming mug her assistant had waiting for her. “You’re a godsend, Bea, you really are, but you need to get that crap off my phone.”

“Crap?”

“Don’t play cute. You know exactly what I’m talking about.” Veronica set the mug on her desk and pulled her phone out of her jacket pocket. “The crap that reminds me every day of the impending doom that is my thirty-fifth birthday.” For the past week, Bea’s daily alerts had delivered the same message in some new and clever way. Reminder—in five months and eight days, you’ll turn thirty-five. A gal on your arm shows the world you’re alive. She handed the phone to Bea. “Please. Take care of it.”

Bea didn’t take the phone. Instead, she asked, “Did you even look at what it said today?”

Bea reminded Veronica of a young Audrey Hepburn. She had the short bangs and the red lipstick and big brown eyes. Flamboyant skirts and dresses were the norm, along with a colorful cardigan because the offices were a bit on the chilly side. As meddling assistants went, Bea was straight out of central casting. They stared each other down for a few seconds before Veronica gave in with a huff and looked at her phone. Curiosity quickly morphed into horror.

 

Your whole life is planned

That much we know.

But you won’t find a wife

At Belden & Snow.

I’m here to help you

Like it or not.

Your date is at eight

And PS, she’s hot!

 

“Oh, God. No. No, no, no!”

“Hold on,” Bea said. “Just hear me out.”

“You scheduled a blind date? For tonight?” Veronica threw her hands in the air. “For me?”

“You said you wanted to be married by thirty-five.”

“I was drunk when I said that!”

“Or at least on your way to being married by thirty-five.” Bea sat in a chair by Veronica’s desk. “Please hear me out, V. I have this so worked out you wouldn’t even believe it.”

Going out for drinks with her assistant wasn’t something Veronica normally did, but they’d settled a big case the week before, and Bea wanted to try a new place that offered craft cocktails. That’s what Bea called them. Craft cocktails. Apparently, Veronica was old-fashioned because she preferred her drinks with less craft and more olives, rosemary sprigs and lavender essence be damned.

Getting drunk that night was definitely not part of the plan. Spilling her guts about her private life wasn’t either. For whatever reason—possibly the absinthe-soaked orchid leaves—it had happened. And now Bea knew that Veronica had put everything off for her career. Wife, kids, a home with a gourmet kitchen. Veronica told Bea about every single goal, want, and desire that had been set aside so she could focus on becoming a partner in one of the most prestigious law firms in New York City.

Veronica knew the clock was ticking. Biological and otherwise. She sat and looked Bea in the eye. “She’d better be amazing, this woman you’ve set me up with.”

“She is. I mean, as far as I can tell from her profile.”

Veronica lifted an eyebrow. “Profile?”

Bea put up a hand. “Hear me out, V.”

“I already heard you out,” Veronica interrupted. “When you said blind date, I assumed that meant blind to me, not you!”

“Well, I mean, technically, I never said it was a blind date at all.”

At that point, Veronica was just this side of apoplectic. “Oh, don’t you even try to lawyer me. Stay in your lane, Beatrice.”

They stared each other down for a moment before Bea burst out laughing. “You realize that is literally not my name, right?”

“Of course I know that, Beadore.”

“Also not my name. It’s Bea. Just Bea. Always has been—”

“Always will Bea. Yeah, I know the joke.” Veronica tried to look stern but knew she failed miserably. She smiled at her assistant. “Bea, I adore you, but you are seriously stressing me out right now.”

“This will work. I know it will. Thirty dates, and you’ll have found the one.”

Veronica’s eyes widened. “How exactly did it go from one date to thirty?”

Bea bit the tip of her finger. “I may have put you on a dating app called Ryder. It’s strictly for lesbians.”

Veronica’s mouth gaped open. “Ride Her? You put me on an app called Ride Her?”

“Ha! No! It’s called Ryder. R-Y-D-E-R. I hadn’t noticed the pun until now, but I swear it’s legit. They even vet you to make sure you’re not some weird dude or homophobic creep.” She pointed at Veronica’s hair. “But you’ll have to lose the bun.”

“What do they have against buns?” Veronica absentmindedly smoothed down her hair. Yeah, so she wasn’t like Bea. She only wore black, navy blue, and gray in the form of a suit or a shift dress. And the tightly pulled-back hair meant she didn’t have to spend unnecessary time trying to style it. It looked professional, and that was all that mattered.

“The photo,” Bea said. “Your hair’s down in the photo I found for your profile pic. It looks pretty.”

Veronica shook her head in disgust. Bea had overstepped her bounds. In fact, from the look of things, Bea didn’t actually have any bounds. “Cancel the date tonight.”

“But—”

“I said cancel it, Bea. I don’t have time for one date, let alone thirty.”

“You’re a big hit on Ryder. Everyone wants a date with you. And I’ve set it up so that they all happen at the same time and place. Just thirty minutes. Coffee, a drink, whatever. And you’ll be done with it in a month. Thirty dates in thirty days. Done. Married. Well, at least engaged by your birthday. Your mom will be so happy.”

Bea had lost her mind. Was she trying to get fired? And yet she sort of had it right. If Veronica were to do something like this, she wouldn’t want it to drag out for months on end. And she was fairly certain she’d know within a few minutes if she’d found someone she clicked with. No need for drinks and dinner. She shook her head. “Show me.”

Bea took her phone out of her skirt pocket, because of course Bea’s skirt had pockets. She pulled up Veronica’s profile. “I may have embellished a little bit.”

Veronica rolled her eyes. “Did you make me a judge instead of an attorney?”

“No, I made you interesting.”

“How am I not supposed to be offended by that?” Veronica skimmed through her profile and looked at Bea. “This looks like my mother wrote it.”

“She may have helped.”

Veronica held up the phone. “This is high school me. Not thirty-four-year-old me. I don’t surf anymore. I don’t love board games. I don’t, for the love of God, go camping, and I haven’t eaten an Eggo waffle since—”

“High school?”

“Bingo!”

“Got it.” Bea paused for a moment. With excitement written all over her face, she said, “But you could! Your mom said you were great at all that outdoorsy stuff back in the day, and I still eat Eggo waffles when I’m in a hurry. It’s nothing to be ashamed about.”

Bea had indeed lost her damned mind. At least she’d picked a good profile pic, one Veronica’s mother had no doubt given her. It had been taken on Thanksgiving Day, so yes, her hair was down, and she looked more rested than normal. Thank God the photo wasn’t from high school too.

Would it be so bad to find someone this way? On a dating app? Veronica cringed at the thought, then considered her other options. Hanging out in bars wasn’t her thing. Asking friends to set her up was a definite no go. Most of her friends had terrible taste in women, especially her straight friends. They acted as if there was nowhere to go but up. Besides, she worked so much, she hardly ever saw them anymore. What was she going to do, call them out of the blue and say Hey, sorry I’m too busy to do lunch, but do you mind going through your contact list to see if there are any single lesbians in the mix? God could just kill her now.

Random encounters were also unlikely since they certainly hadn’t happened so far. The truth was, she was beyond ready to find a woman she could share her life with; she just wasn’t sure this was the best way to go about it.

Bea’s phone dinged in Veronica’s hand, and a photo of a woman popped up. “That means you have another interested party,” Bea said with a wink.

“Don’t wink at me.”

Bea slouched in her chair. “Fine. If you tap on the pic, her profile will come up.”

Veronica followed Bea’s instruction and slid the phone back across the desk. “It was wrong of you to go about it this way, conspiring with my mother the way you have.”

Bea sank even lower in her chair.

“Having said that, it’s not the worst idea ever. Hell, it’s not even the worst idea you’ve ever had. Close, but not the worst. So, here’s what I expect from you.”

Bea sat up straighter. “Okay, go.”

“I don’t want to have to look at that app ever again. You’ll email the woman’s full profile to me an hour before the date. I don’t want to get distracted by who I’m meeting that day. Got it?”

“Got it.”

“Also, you’ll ask each of them what their favorite drink is, and that’s what we’ll both drink during the appointment.”

“Date,” Bea said, grabbing her phone off the desk. “These women will think they’re going on a date, even if it’s a short one.” She swiped through the still-open app until she found what she was looking for. “There she is. Lucky Lady Number One.” She typed with both thumbs into her phone, muttering softly, “What…is…your…favorite…drink?”

“Fine, we’ll call it a date, but these women need to know up front that it’s just a drink. No dinner. No hooking up later. Just drinks.”

Bea pointed her finger. “Unless you like her.”

Veronica cocked her head and smirked. “If I like her, I can manage the rest, okay?”

Bea nodded. “But you’ll tell me, right? I mean, I’ll go crazy if you don’t tell me how it went.”

“We’ll see.” Veronica pulled a file out of her briefcase. “Now, let’s get to work.”

“Don’t you want to know where you’ll be meeting these women?”

“Well, Bea, you’re actually a very competent assistant when you’re not meddling in my personal life, so I’m guessing you picked somewhere close by. Nice, but not too nice. Not too loud, so I can actually carry on a conversation and get to know the person. Am I warm?”

“Very warm. It’s this great little place called Monaghan’s. It used to be kind of a dive. You know, regulars who’d been there since the place was built. Anyway, the owner died and left it to his daughter. She’s transformed it into this modern yet rustic haven. You walk in, and the hustle and bustle of the city and all your troubles just melt away.”

“Bea, if I look on their website, what will it say on the homepage?”

Bea gave a sheepish grin. “That it’s a modern yet rustic haven where all your troubles melt away.”

Veronica rolled her eyes and laughed. “That’s what I thought. As much as I look forward to all of my troubles melting away, they’re going to multiply if we don’t get to work.”

Bea stood. “Right. Back to work we go!”

“Hold on.” Veronica held up her phone. “It’s my mom. You’re staying right here.”

Bea put her hands over her eyes, leaving a tiny slit between two fingers.

Veronica set the phone down and put it on speaker. “Hi, Mom.”

“Hi, sweetheart. Any plans tonight?”

“I know you know, Mom. You don’t have to pretend you’re innocent in all of this. And really with the Eggo waffles being my favorite food?”

“You loved them so much I couldn’t keep the freezer stocked. I had to buy them in bulk. Your father says hello.”

“Hi, Dad. Mom, listen.”

“What are you going to wear, dear? You must not wear your hair in a bun.”

Veronica narrowed her eyes at Bea. “Yes, your little co-conspirator already passed on that information to me.”

“You’re such a pretty girl, V. Let your hair down, and let your light shine.”

Bea added her two cents with a big nod. Veronica shot her a glare. “Okay, gotta get back to work. Bye, Mom.”

Bea pointed at the door. “I’m just going to…”

“Good idea.” Veronica raised her voice and shouted, “You’re lucky you still have a job!”

 

v

 

Oh, for God’s sake, her hands were shaking. Veronica couldn’t remember the last time she’d been on a real date. Maybe her late twenties? Surely, it hadn’t been that long. Truth was, it had probably been longer. She never did count anything with Avery as a real date.

“Monaghan’s?” Veronica looked up from her phone and spotted the small sign across the street. “There you are. So far, so good, Bea.” The place was only two blocks from her office. It looked quaint. Not big enough for rowdy crowds. She opened the door, and sure enough, the hustle and bustle of the city disappeared when the door shut behind her. She laughed a little to herself about the cheesy website description and how accurate it actually was.

There was nothing about this bar that said dive. The industrial lighting made it look sleek, but the dark wood tabletops and chairs brought a warmth to the space. A modern yet rustic haven. Veronica needed a haven if she was going to get her hands to stop shaking. Hell, she needed a ninety-minute massage or, better yet, a Xanax followed by an hour of meditation. Or maybe some of the “float therapy” she’d scoffed at when she read about it in a waiting room. It was sounding better by the minute.

“Veronica?” A woman stepped into the bar behind her. “I hope I’m not late.”

Veronica had hoped to get a table and order the drinks before her date arrived so she could take a few sips and calm down a bit. No such luck. She put out her hand. “Eve. It’s good to meet you.” At least Veronica’s hand wasn’t sweaty. Unfortunately, her throat was bone dry. She looked around and decided a table by the window would work best. “Let’s sit.”

They took off their coats and hung them on the chair. Veronica hesitated to sit first. Should she wait until her date sat? What were the rules for lesbians? She stood there awkwardly, but so did Eve. The look on her face told Veronica she wasn’t sure what was going on. “Sorry.” Veronica sat. “Are there rules of chivalry for lesbians?”

“Rules?” Eve shook her head. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

Great. Now Eve knew that Veronica had no clue what she was doing. Smooth, V. Real smooth. “Never mind. Should we order drinks?” She turned and saw that the bartender was busy. “I’ll just go up and order for us.” Maybe she’d calm down if she could stand at the bar for a minute. Don’t trip on the way there.

The bartender smiled at Veronica as if she knew her. “Hey there!”

But they didn’t know each other. Veronica was sure of it. Still, it was nice to be greeted that way in the rudest city on earth. She smiled back. “Hi. Can we get two coffee and Baileys please?”

“So polite,” the woman said. “You must be from somewhere else.”

“Nope. Born and raised on the Upper West Side. Besides, you started it.”

The woman laughed. “I guess I did. I’ll bring the drinks to your table. No need to wait here.”

Veronica wished waiting was required. She’d much rather stand at the bar and talk to the friendly woman with curly hair than go back to Eve. Not that Eve didn’t seem nice. She was pretty too. Short dark hair. High cheekbones. Veronica glanced back at her. Yeah, long legs too.

“Go get to know her.”

Veronica turned back to the bartender. “What?”

“I can spot a first date a mile away. Trust me, she’s just as nervous as you are.”

“You think so?” Veronica wasn’t so sure about that.

The bartender leaned in close. “I’ll be right behind you with the drinks. Talk about the weather until I get there.”

That was quite possibly the worst advice Veronica had ever heard, but she nodded. “Okay.”

Eve smiled at her as she approached the table and sat. “It’s a chilly night,” she said. “I’m really glad this bar isn’t cold and drafty.”

Yes! Veronica didn’t have to be the one to bring up the weather. “Are you okay by the window? We could move closer to the bar.” Eve had on a chunky black sweater, but Veronica thought it would be polite to offer.

“I’m fine.” Eve tugged at the neck of her sweater. “That thing you said about lesbian rules. I guess I don’t know about those because I’m not one actually.”

“One what?”

“A lesbian,” Eve whispered.

“Okay. Um…” Veronica wasn’t sure what to say next.

“I’m…well, I don’t really know what I am at the moment.”

“I’m not sure what you’re trying to tell me. Your profile said you’re interested in women only.”

“It also said I’m single. I’m not that either. Not yet anyway.”

“Oh.”

“I’m not trying to deceive anyone,” Eve said.

“All evidence to the contrary.”

“I just didn’t think a woman would go out with me unless I implied I have a little more experience than I do. But you seem like a very nice person, Veronica. In fact, you’re exactly the kind of woman I’d love to…”

“Experiment with?” All of the air seemed to leave the room as Veronica said the words. The bartender set the cups of coffee on the table. From the concerned look on her face, Veronica was fairly certain she’d heard the last of the conversation. “Thank you.” Veronica got her wallet and pulled out a twenty. She set it on the bartender’s tray. “That’ll be all for us tonight.” She gave her a smile and said, “Keep the change.”

“I chose coffee because I knew it would be cold tonight, but right now, I feel so flushed with embarrassment, I think I might burn up if I take a sip.”

Veronica wasn’t sure how to respond. Eve’s profile had obviously been a complete lie. “Maybe you could tell me something that’s true. Are you really a manager at Macy’s?”

Eve laughed nervously. “God. Are we really going to do this?”

“We don’t have to,” Veronica said. “But I can tell you we certainly aren’t going to do anything else.”

“There’s a woman I like there. She’s a manager in the handbag section.” Eve pulled her sweater up over her mouth. “It’s so Carol, isn’t it? I’ve probably seen that movie twenty times.”

Veronica didn’t have time for this. Hell, she didn’t even have time to date actual lesbians, let alone someone who had made up an entirely fake profile based on some woman she had a crush on and a movie she liked. “Is your husband getting sick of you filling the closet with designer bags?”

“Ha! You have no idea.”

Okay, so Eve wasn’t even separated from her husband. Veronica sighed. “I’m sorry, I just don’t have time for games.”

Eve’s expression sobered. “Oh. I really didn’t mean any harm. You’re my first date. With a woman, I mean.”

Veronica felt frustrated that she’d been misled, but she also understood that Eve was probably questioning her sexuality. “Eve, I’m sure there are women out there who would be totally fine with what you have to offer, as long as you’re up front about it. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them.”

Eve stood and put her coat on. “Please forget you ever met me.”

Veronica picked up her cup and held it with both hands. “I already have.”

 

v

 

“So? How did it go?”

Veronica glanced at the clock on her monitor. Bea was twenty minutes early and sporting a huge smile, which was so far from normal, Veronica wanted to laugh. “You’re never early.”

“I could hardly sleep.” Bea crossed her fingers. “Please tell me it went well.”

“Shut the door.”

Bea’s smile faded. She backed up and pushed the door shut. “You’re twirling your pen. That’s never a good sign.”

Veronica set the pen down. “Perhaps I wasn’t clear about my ‘type’ when we spoke earlier.” She used finger quotes. “You get points for style. Eve is well put together. She’s well-spoken, and no one would argue that she isn’t beautiful.”

Bea shook her head. “I don’t understand. What’s the problem exactly?”

“Well, you see, Bea, what I apparently failed to make clear is that I am looking for an actual lesbian.”

Bea threw a hand over her mouth. “Oh God. No.”

“Now, I can’t discount the possibility that Eve is an actual lesbian—and keep in mind bisexual is great too—but it was a little hard to tell because I couldn’t quite get past the fact that she has a husband.”

Bea threw both hands over her eyes. “What have I done?”

“We’re not giving up.”

Bea uncovered her eyes. “We’re not?”

Veronica had given it some thought. There was only so much information Bea could glean from the profiles these women created. It was up to Veronica to get to know who they really were. She liked the bar Bea had chosen. She liked the bartender with the pretty curly hair that seemed to have a life of its own. Why give up after only one date? “We move on from the experimenter and hope for better future results.”

“The experi…” Bea waved a hand. “Never mind. I don’t want to know.” She stood and put a fist in the air. “Onward and upward!”

 

Chapter Two

Rachel rushed into the bar her cousin owned. Monaghan’s was already busy with the after-work crowd, and she was late. “Sorry!” she shouted as she ran into the service area. She stopped short when she realized her cousin hadn’t even noticed her. Charlotte seemed mesmerized by two women sitting at a small table by the window. Three of the bar patrons appeared to join her in gawking.

She went into the back room and threw her satchel and leather jacket in a locker. She grabbed an apron and tied it around her waist, then joined Charlotte behind the bar. She leaned on her elbows and threw a few beer nuts in her mouth. “What are we looking at?”

Charlotte, who seemingly chose that very moment to start being subtle, leaned in and whispered, “First date.”

Rachel took a closer look at the women. They were seated against the window, so she could only see their profiles, but she could tell that the blonde in the tailored charcoal power suit was a total knockout. Nice legs. Long, slender fingers. Rachel always noticed the fingers.

The redhead was cute too but not really Rachel’s type. Too cutesy. Too giggly. Was Power Suit really that funny, or was Cutesy just nervous? Power Suit glanced over at them, and the entire group immediately tried to look busy. One man took a sudden interest in a bowl of pretzels. Another swirled his beer as if it were a fine wine. The lone female patron found herself with an urgent need to rifle through her purse.

Charlotte’s way of looking busy was to wipe down the bar. She gave Rachel a sly grin as she worked. “I know which one you like. You have a type, Rachel Monaghan.”

Rachel threw another nut in her mouth and grinned back. “I like all women.”

Charlotte lowered her voice and leaned in close. “That’s true, but I know how much you love the power suit type. Overworked and undersexed. Isn’t that what you said?”

Rachel sighed. “I would never say something so crass.”

“Like hell you wouldn’t.” Charlotte pointed at Power Suit. “But that nice lady is looking for love, not a quickie with some burned-out wedding photographer who thinks real, lasting love isn’t even a thing.”

“I am not burned out!”

Charlotte raised her eyebrows. “Okay, fine. I’ll give you that one back. But we both know the rest of it is true.”

So maybe Rachel had become cynical over the years. So what? Her current routine suited her just fine. Three dates, max. It was enough to have some fun and possibly some great sex, but not enough to ever get attached to one person ever again. It worked. And she wasn’t changing anytime soon.

Charlotte kissed Rachel on the cheek. “Thanks for covering for me. I won’t be more than a couple of hours.” She went to walk away but turned back. “Promise me, Rach.” She motioned with her head toward Power Suit.

Rachel waved her away. “Yeah, yeah. Go, or you’ll be late.”

Once Charlotte was out of sight, Rachel glanced at the couple again. Cutesy girl was still giggling. Power Suit was sporting a tight smile. This would never work. Rachel knew it and so did Power Suit. Rachel’s attention turned to the customers sitting at the bar. She worked her way over to the threesome, now in a deep discussion. She wiped the bar as she went, leaning in as she got closer to the customers.

“This is the one,” the woman whispered. “There will be a second date. I’d put money on it.”

“This is only the fourth lady she’s seen. She has twenty-six more to go. Don’t go marrying her off yet.”

Rachel glanced at the elderly couple. At least, she assumed they were a couple since the woman had just pushed the bowl of nuts away from the man. The other man sitting next to the couple smiled at her. “Hello, pipsqueak.”

Rachel peered at the man. “Harry, is that you?” She hadn’t seen her uncle John’s old friend since his funeral. A Yankees cap that sat low on his head obscured her view.

“In the flesh.” Harry took off his cap and set in on the bar. “Probably didn’t recognize me with the facial hair. My son and I are having a beard-growing contest. Guess who’s winning?”

Rachel couldn’t believe it was Harry. She remembered him always being clean-shaven and wearing a suit and tie. Now he sported a full beard that was mostly gray. “Keep it up and they’ll have you playing Santa at Macy’s next year,” she said.

Harry shrugged. “Not a bad gig for an old guy like me. These are my new friends, Carol and Joe.”

She gave them a quick wave. “Nice to meet you both. I’m Rachel.” They seemed like your typical retired couple. Rachel guessed they were in their early seventies and probably halfway to Boca Raton already. Carol wasn’t letting her short hair go gray, though. It was a pretty shade of blond, and her pink lipstick matched the color on her fingernails.

Joe was bald. If he had any hair left, he shaved it regularly. He had bright blue eyes and a friendly smile. He reached across the bar for Rachel’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Rachel. I’ll have another—” He stopped when Carol put her hand on his arm. “Oh, all right. Make it a Diet Coke.”

Rachel took the empty beer glass away and poured him the soda. This was exactly the kind of thing she was avoiding. If she stayed single, no one would ever tell her what she could and couldn’t drink. Or eat. Or buy. No one would remind her of her faults or write honey-do lists or tell her to bathe every day. Okay, that last one wasn’t an issue, but still, these were the things couples argued about. She didn’t need that in her life.

“Haven’t seen you in a while,” Harry said. “What brings you back to the bar?”

“Just covering for Charlotte. She has a lot on her plate right now.”

“She sure does. You’re a good kid, Rachel.”

“Hey, it’s family. I’ll help whenever I can.” Rachel leaned in closer. “So, I heard you all talking about the fourth date, but Charlotte said it’s a first date, so what’s the deal?” She motioned with her head toward the two women.

“Don’t know much,” Harry whispered. “Just what Charlotte tells us.”

Carol also leaned in. “The pretty one in the fancy suit, her name is Veronica,” Carol said. “She’s on a mission to find the one. Thirty dates, just as fast as her assistant can set them up.”

Rachel scrunched up her face. “Oh, come on. You’re telling me that perfectly put-together woman came in here and spilled her guts to Charlotte?”

“Heavens no, not at all,” Joe exclaimed. “We can’t even figure out what drink she likes!”

Carol continued. “Her assistant came in and explained things to Charlotte. Char said she’s the cutest little thing too. Her name’s Bea. I guess she wanted to make sure Charlotte didn’t spill the beans from one date to another.”

“Or even worse, that Charlotte might think she was a hooker!” Harry interjected.

Rachel raised an eyebrow, and Carol gave him an elbow in the side.

“What?” he tried to defend himself. “She’s here every night. Someone could make that assumption.”

Joe leaned in and whispered, “She seems like a nice gal. I hope she finds what she’s looking for.”

Rachel rested her chin in her hand and took a longer look at the women. So, Power Suit was looking for “the one.” She had to disagree with Carol. Cutesy girl was definitely not the one. Power Suit looked bored out of her mind. She smiled every now and then, but she was about to pass out from boredom. Rachel could change that. She winked at Harry and her new friends and said, “I’ll be right back.”

 

v

 

If only Veronica felt as giddy about the evening as her date did. It seemed as if the response to everything she said was a giggle. And while Veronica thought herself slightly snarky, she wasn’t exactly doing standup at that moment. To make matters worse, she kept having to remind herself of the woman’s name. She quickly glanced at the dossier Bea had put on her phone. That’s right. Penelope Jones. “Are you nervous, Penelope? Would you like another—”

“Let me guess. Two more Shirley Temples?” A tall brunette stood at the edge of their table with her hands behind her back and a twinkle in her eye. She wasn’t Charlotte, the regular bartender. Veronica looked past her to see where Charlotte had gone. “Looking for the owner?”

Veronica nodded.

“She had to step out for a bit. I’m covering for her. I’m her cousin.” Rachel extended her hand. “Rachel.”

“Oh.” Veronica didn’t feel the need to introduce herself or her date to the new bartender. This Rachel person was sporting a grin the size of Texas. Great. Just what Veronica needed—another happy soul to remind her she should probably smile more. Let her hair down. Let her freaking light shine. How disappointed would her mother be that she’d left her hair in a bun this time? She’d never have to know. Besides, Shirley Temple didn’t seem to care. All she could do was giggle. Heh. Shirley Temple. The name suited Penelope better than Penelope did.

Now, the bartender—did she say her name was Rachel? Her smile was naturally wide. Veronica shouldn’t knock her for that. She was just being friendly. Besides, she was very easy to look at with those warm brown eyes and kissable lips. And she was still waiting for an answer. Veronica cleared her throat. “Penelope, would you like another…” She had to force the next two words out of her mouth. “Shirley Temple?”

“Yes!” Penelope said it with a giggle, of course. “I don’t drink alcohol, and the only thing I know how to order in a bar is a Shirley Temple. I’ve been drinking them since I was a kid. My parents were alcoholics, and they took me to bars when I was pretty young. I would sit in the corner and make up stories about everyone. That’s why I’m a writer now. I have lots of stories in my head that just have to come out.”

“Wow,” Rachel said. “What kind of stories do you write?”

“Horror, mostly.” Penelope made a slashing motion across her neck with her hand. “Heads coming off and stuff.” Her eyes rolled into the back of her head, and her body slumped as if she’d died. Veronica and Rachel looked at each other, then Penelope came back to life and laughed. “Gotcha!”

“Two Shirley Temples coming right up.” Rachel winked at Veronica before she walked away. She wasn’t sure what that meant, but she took a long look at her backside until Penelope drew her attention back to the table. Penelope Jones, the extremely fast talker who, with boundless energy and a dark imagination, was a mystery Veronica had no desire to solve. But she was kind of stuck there until her phone vibrated, indicating her thirty minutes was up.

The wink had meant vodka. Veronica’s second Shirley Temple was no virgin. She sucked half of it down and gave the new bartender a grateful smile. She didn’t need to ask Penelope any more questions, so she let her talk about her books. The second her phone vibrated, she put some cash on the table and stood. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Penelope. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.”

It was a blow-off of epic proportions, but Penelope seemed to take it well enough. She shook Veronica’s hand and said, “You too. Being a lawyer and whatever.”

And that was that. Date number four was in the books, and it certainly wasn’t anything to write home about. Neither were one, two, or three. Not that they weren’t pleasant women. They all had traits that Veronica liked, and Bea certainly knew how to find some lookers, but there wasn’t that thing. She wanted that magnetic force to pull her in. Or at the very least, she wanted to find someone she could wake up next to and not be annoyed by. She glanced over at the bartender as Shirley Temple left the restaurant. She wondered if Rachel was gay or straight. She never did have good gaydar. It didn’t matter anyway. Bartenders worked nights, and Veronica wanted someone to spend her evenings with. Someone to cook dinner with and snuggle on the sofa with while they watched a movie. She wanted that life—the life she’d put off for far too long.

 

v

 

Veronica looked at her watch. “Bea!”

“Sorry!” Bea rushed into the office and pushed a few buttons on her phone. “Okay, sent!” She sat. “Are you going to tell me how last night’s date went?”

“Two words. Shirley Temple.”

“Yeah,” Bea said. “The drink choice concerned me too. Isn’t that something kids usually order?”

Between the drinks and the constant giggling, Penelope did seem rather childlike. “Let’s just say she’s a very young thirty-one. But it’s not worth rehashing.” So far, none of the dates had been worth telling Bea or her mother about. She’d managed to blow off their constant queries so far.

Veronica pulled up the just-sent email and perused the profile of tonight’s date. “Oh, she’s pretty.” She was breaking her own rule. So far, Veronica had been good about not opening the emails until just before date time. All bets were off after Shirley Temple. She needed to know tonight’s date was a bona fide grown-up. Veronica leaned on her elbows and expanded the profile photo. “Very pretty.”

“Who is?” Veronica’s ex-lover, Avery, sauntered into the office. She never just walked. She sauntered.

Bea stood and made a quick exit. “I’ll close the door behind me.”

Avery sat. “Why does your assistant hate me?”

Veronica pulled her eyes away from her phone. “Because you’re unlikeable.”

“That’s not what you said when I had you up against—”

“Not here.” Veronica put her phone down. “Please, Avery.”

“Yes. That’s exactly what you said when I had you up against that wall over there.”

Avery Hunt was a pretentious, arrogant, sexy-as-hell tax attorney with a full roster of downright shady clients. Avery and Veronica had been in a relationship, if you could call it that, for all of three months. A relationship that had been kept quiet for the most part. Veronica hadn’t even told her own mother about it. Why bother when she knew what the outcome would be before they even had their first kiss?

Avery had joined the firm the previous year. She’d brought with her those shady clients and a pair of legs that Veronica had been caught staring at more than once. Avery made her move one night in Veronica’s office when they were both working late. And from that moment on, Avery never let Veronica forget how easy it had been to seduce her. They’d barely spoken at all except for a few hellos in the hallway. And yet, a few sexy words whispered in her ear, and Veronica was there for the taking.

“Oh God. Please, Avery.” Avery leaned back in the chair and giggled at her own joke. Veronica didn’t laugh. “I’m just teasing you, V. Now, tell me. Who’s the lucky girl that’s caught your eye?”

“Promise not to laugh?”

“Why would I laugh?”

“Because you’re kind of bitchy.” Veronica sighed. “Fine. I’m on Ryder.”

Avery’s eyes widened in surprise. “No way.”

“Way.”

“Wow. You really are serious about that white picket fence.”

That white picket fence was exactly why Veronica had broken it off with Avery. The sex had been great, but it wasn’t enough. And when someone is always the first to leave the bed, it was telling. Veronica knew because she’d been that person too—not wanting to get so wrapped in a woman that her priorities would change. Her career came first, and she didn’t begrudge Avery for feeling the same way. “I’m also serious about making partner. So, please, Avery.”

Avery sat forward and put an arm on the desk. “Oh, the begging again. You know what that does to me.”

Veronica rolled her eyes. “God, you’re something else.”

Avery grinned. “I am. And so are you, Veronica Welch.” She reached across the desk and ran her finger over Veronica’s arm. “Forget whoever’s in your phone. Let me take you to dinner. We could go to that place you love so much, with the tiramisu. We’ll get it to go, and I’ll lick it off your amazing body at my place. What do you say?”

It was tempting. Avery, with her perfect auburn hair and that little dent in her chin. God, it was tempting. But they were in different places, and Veronica didn’t want to waste her time or, even worse, get her heart broken. “I appreciate the offer, Ave. I really do. But I have a date tonight with,” Veronica looked at her phone, “Randi.”

Avery stood and leaned on the desk, giving Veronica a peek down her silk blouse. The bra was pink today, which meant the panties were as well. She tried not to think about how good it would feel to slide her fingers into those panties and find bare skin. She looked away, but it was too late. Avery knew where her mind had gone.

“Yeah,” Avery said in her sexiest voice. “I was thinking the same thing.” She straightened and put her hands on her curvy hips. Veronica made eye contact again. Avery bit her lip, then winked. “Have fun tonight.”

Veronica knew that wasn’t what Avery wanted to say, but it was sweet of her to voice the sentiment. “Thanks, Avery. See you tomorrow.”

 

v

 

Randi was the perfect distraction from Avery and her lovely offer to smear tiramisu all over her body and then lick it off. She was curvy in all the right places and wore her blond hair in a cute bob that she tucked behind her ears. She was talkative but not overly talkative the way Shirley Temple was. And she definitely seemed interested in Veronica. Her eyes had roamed over her body several times already. They were off to a good start, and that was a relief.

“I’ve never been here before. It’s nice,” Randi said.

“It is nice. I’ve been here a few times.” Five, to be exact. Veronica had to admit that Bea had done well with her choice of bars. These dates could’ve happened anywhere, but she’d chosen a quaint, intimate place that wasn’t too crowded and just happened to be right next door to an Italian restaurant that had great reviews. If things went well with Randi, a dinner table for two was just a few feet away. Veronica found herself hoping that was exactly where they’d end up. She could picture herself asking about Randi’s family over a medium rare filet. Or a bowl of bolognese. Anything, really. She’d skipped lunch, and the small bowl of nuts on the table wasn’t cutting it. Maybe she should just make the reservation right now. Why wait until the designated thirty minutes was up? Just go ahead and ask her to dinner.

“Do you live close by?”

“I work close by,” Veronica said.

“I do too. Maybe we could do lunch sometime.”

“Or dinner.” Veronica picked up her phone. “Do you like Italian? The restaurant next door has excellent reviews.”

Randi glanced at her purse sitting on the floor. “You mean now?”

“Well, we can finish our drinks first.” Veronica picked up the large glass and put it to her lips.

Randi looked at her purse again and said, “I have a pet boa constrictor.”

Veronica choked on her piña colada. She put her napkin over her mouth and sputtered into it, then held up a finger, indicating she needed a second. She needed more than a second. How was this information not in the profile? Randi looked concerned, so Veronica managed to blurt out, “I’m fine,” then covered her mouth again and proceeded to cough up her right lung.

Randi’s look of worry turned into one of determination. She grabbed both of their purses and took Veronica’s arm. “Stand up. I’m taking you to the restroom.”

It was for the best. Veronica didn’t want to get banned from the bar for spewing rum and pineapple juice on the other customers, especially since she still had twenty-five more dates scheduled there. Also, what was it with these cute girls and their questionable drink choices? Had no one heard of a simple vodka tonic? Or a glass of red?

In the restroom, Randi wet down a paper towel and gave it to Veronica. “Just breathe.”

That was proving difficult. Veronica bent over and coughed as hard as she could a few more times. It seemed to help settle things. She straightened back up and leaned against the wall. “Sorry.”

Randi had a nice smile. Genuine. Her touch was nice too. She gently wiped the leftover tears from Veronica’s cheeks with a tissue. “It’s okay. I take it you don’t love snakes.”

Does anyone? Veronica noticed the small cage sitting on the sink next to Randi’s massive handbag. Oh, God. Was that a live mouse? How had she not noticed Randi carrying that when she walked into the bar? “Is that…” Snake food?She leaned against the counter and tried not to faint.

“I probably should’ve put Vicki in my profile.”

“Vicki?” Veronica put her hand over her mouth and coughed a few more times.

“That’s her name. My pet boa constrictor. Sorry, but the pet store was closing. I had to get Vicki’s dinner before I came here.”

Veronica glanced at the mouse again. Was this really happening? Randi stepped closer and pushed a lock of hair behind Veronica’s ear. “Don’t hold it against me. Not yet. I think you’re beautiful, Veronica, and if we weren’t in a bathroom, and you weren’t choking, I’d kiss you right now.”

Veronica noticed part of a tattoo peeking out from under Randi’s scoop-neck blouse. It looked like the tip of a forked tongue was licking her breast. She had to know. “Is that Vicki?”

Randi’s eyes lit up. She pulled her blouse to the side and revealed a coiled-up snake squeezing the life out of a human heart. “Vicki, meet Veronica.”

Veronica wanted to jump up onto the counter so the imaginary snakes that were now covering the floor couldn’t get to her. She was truly freaking out on the inside, but she managed to push herself up and sit on the counter. “I’m sorry, Randi, but I don’t do snakes. They terrify me.”

Randi’s smile faded. “Oh.” She covered the tattoo with her blouse. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” She looked at Veronica’s shaking hands. “Wow, they really do freak you out.”

“It was my childhood nightmare, waking up and seeing snakes slithering all over the floor. I blame Indiana Jones.” The mouse squeaked in its little cage. Veronica covered her eyes and tried to block the images of a snake devouring the poor little guy. “I think it’s best if we just call it a day. I’m too freaked out to be good company right now.”

“Sure.” Randi grabbed the mouse cage and tucked it behind her purse. “I’m really sorry about this.”

Veronica felt like such a fool for reacting the way she had. She put up her hands. “It’s okay. Really.”

“Okay, then.” Randi backed toward the door. She was kind enough to make sure the mouse stayed hidden. “Good to meet you, Veronica.”

“Good to meet you too.” Veronica gave her a little wave. When the door closed, she took a deep breath and shook her head at herself. She slipped off the counter and turned to look in the mirror. Her mascara wasn’t too bad. Just a couple of smudges from the coughing attack. She cleaned up a little, ran her fingers through her hair, grabbed her purse, and headed for the door, running smack into Rachel, the hot bartender. “Oh! Sorry.”

Rachel put her hands on Veronica’s shoulders. “Are you okay? We saw what happened.”

We? Who’s we? Did the whole bar witness her choke on a damned piña colada? “Yeah, um…I’m fine.”

“How about some water?”

Veronica’s throat felt rough. Water sounded good. She gave Rachel a nod and followed her to the bar.

“She’s fine. Just needs a little water,” Rachel said.

Veronica watched in confusion as three customers sitting on the short side of the bar nodded their understanding. Charlotte, the regular bartender, was there too. She opened a small bottle of water and slid it across the bar. “Here you go.”

“Thanks.” Veronica set her purse on the bar and sat on a stool. She could feel everyone’s eyes on her as she took the first sip. Even Rachel was leaning against the back of the bar with her arms folded, still looking concerned. She wasn’t wearing an apron this time. Just a T-shirt and jeans with a cool leather belt. The silver buckle looked like a camera lens or something. Veronica wanted to squint to get a better look, but she’d embarrassed herself enough already. She’d leave appearing to squint at another woman’s crotch for a different day.

“She seemed nice, the woman with the pet mouse,” Charlotte said.

Veronica watched the three customers nod in what appeared to be a unanimous vote. “It wasn’t a pet. It was dinner.” They all looked horrified. Good. At least Veronica wasn’t alone in that. “For her pet boa constrictor.”

Again, more horrified looks. But not from Rachel. She was snickering. Yeah, laugh it up, beautiful.

The older woman sitting between two men said, “We had high hopes for this one.”

Rachel threw her hands in the air. “She ordered a piña colada! Do you see a beach anywhere nearby? Or even the sun?”

Charlotte shrugged. “It was an interesting choice.”

Veronica didn’t know what to think. These people, whoever they were, had obviously been watching the shit show that was her current dating life. Her first instinct was to run out of there and never go back. Bea could find a different location. A big bar where no one insinuated themselves into another person’s business. But a part of her felt comfortable right where she was. They all had kind faces, these nosy people. What would it hurt to get to know them a little better? She kind of liked the idea of having a few kind strangers in her corner. “I’m Veronica.”

“Yes, we know, dear. We’ve seen your profile on Ryder,” the woman said. “I’m Carol, and this is my husband, Joe, and our friend, Harry.”

“It feels like we’ve met, but I’m glad to do it formally.” Charlotte pointed at her name tag. “Charlotte. I own the bar. And this is my cousin, Rachel.”

They were cousins? Had Rachel said that to her earlier? Veronica thought back. Shit. She had, but Veronica had been blinded by Rachel’s…well, everything really. Charlotte was on the short side with thick, curly red hair. Rachel was taller, and her hair was dark and straight. They couldn’t have been more different, appearance-wise. Rachel pushed off from the back of the bar and offered her hand. “It’s a pleasure, Veronica. Can I pour you a real drink?”

Rachel’s low-timbred voice seemed to reverberate through Veronica’s body. She found herself not wanting to let go of her warm hand, but with several pairs of eyes focused on her, she gave it a firm shake. “The water is fine.” She looked around, and those same eyes seemed to be filled with disappointment at her drink choice. Oh. Had they been watching this whole time hoping to find out Veronica’s drink of choice? She’d save that little tidbit of information for a later date if they were still interested. In the meantime, she had a question for them. “If you’ve been watching my dates, who have you liked for me?”

The man with the blue eyes spoke up first. “I liked Appletini.”

“Oh, Joe,” Carol said. “You’ve always been a sucker for a girl with a big smile.”

“Well, that’s true,” Joe said. “It’s the first thing I noticed about you.”

It was Veronica’s second date who had ordered appletinis. Nice woman but zero chemistry. While Joe and Carol cooed at one another, she turned her attention to Harry. “What about you?”

Harry shrugged. “Doesn’t matter what I think, but can I give you some advice?”

It was hard to see who Harry really was. The baseball cap cast a shadow over his eyes, and his face was covered in a rather thick beard. Veronica glanced at his hand and said, “You’re not wearing a wedding ring. Should I trust the advice of a single man when it comes to love?”

Harry tilted his head and smiled. “You have a point. But I was married to a lovely woman for forty years. I’d still have the ring on, but she insisted I bury her with it. Till death do us part and all that.”

“I’m sorry,” Veronica said.

“Don’t be. Like I said, I had forty great years with her. But I wouldn’t have had any of that if I hadn’t followed my gut. So, that’s my advice. Follow your gut.”

It wasn’t bad advice. Veronica had followed her gut when it came to Avery. She remembered waking up one morning with a feeling of dread because she knew she had to end it. Avery wasn’t her future. Her gut had told her that.

Rachel leaned on the bar and looked Veronica right in the eye. “I think you’re going about this all wrong.”

Veronica found Rachel’s intense look unnerving, but she tried not to show it. “Last I checked, it wasn’t up to you.” She looked at Rachel’s ring finger and continued, “Besides, you’re not married, either.”

No. Definitely not.”

Veronica wasn’t sure why seeing a wedding ring on someone’s finger mattered so much. She knew there were people who were completely committed to one another but had never taken any vows. Who was she to judge these people? “Okay, fine. How am I doing it wrong?”

Rachel smiled. She seemed grateful for the opportunity to share her wisdom. “You can’t force fate any more than you can force someone to fall in love with you. It has to be organic. A thing that just happens.”

Really? That was her big, important advice? “Organic?” Veronica said the word in a mocking tone and rolled her eyes. “I don’t have time to hang out in the park or the pet store or a club or wherever the hell lesbians hang out and wait for someone to notice me from across the room.”

“You don’t hang out in pet stores? What kind of lesbian are you?”

Rachel was obviously mocking her. Lesbians didn’t really hang out in pet stores, did they? Veronica wasn’t even sure why she’d said it. Maybe it was because her first four dates had all talked about their pets. “The busy kind.”

“You could notice them first, these women who might or might not notice you from across the room,” Rachel said.

“Or here’s a novel idea,” Veronica said. “I could set up dates with women who I know are gay and buy them a drink.”

“Yeah, about those drinks.” Rachel raised her eyebrows and let out a slow whistle.

“Okay.” Veronica was so over this conversation. She just needed to go home and sink into her favorite chair with a glass of something ice cold. With her feet up on the ottoman, of course, because snakes. She shivered at her own thought and checked the floor. Nope. No snakes.

“I have a question,” Rachel said. “If you don’t have time to really get to know a woman, how do you expect anyone to believe that would suddenly change once you married her?”

Who was this woman to judge? She had no idea how hard Veronica had worked to get where she was. How many hours she’d put in every week. It wasn’t all for nothing. Once she made partner, she’d be able to relax a little bit. Take the weekend off a few times a month. Of course she’d have time for another person. She’d make time! “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Veronica held her stare. “When I find a wife, I’ll have time for her and a damn dog. Because I want it all. I’ve worked too hard to not have it all. In fact, I’d even have time for Appletini and her petting zoo!”

Rachel laughed. “You don’t remember her name, do you?”

She couldn’t for the life of her remember her second date’s name. Just that she helped run her family’s mobile petting zoo business. Goddamnit, what was her name? The timer went off on her phone, causing it to vibrate.

“I think that means the date is over,” Rachel said.

Carol reached over and patted Veronica’s hand. “I don’t think you’ve met her yet, but don’t stop trying. You’re a real catch.”

Veronica looked at Rachel, who was still smirking as if she had some big secret. Man, that look pissed her off. “I’m not a quitter, Carol. See you tomorrow.”