Excerpt The Blind Date by Lauren Landish
R: Hey, I’m here a bit early. Found us a table.
A moment later, Mark replies.
M: Great! I just turned into the parking lot. I’ll be inside in 3 min.
I smile. That’s so Mark. Not ‘in a minute’ or ‘see you in five’, but specific . . . three minutes. I bet I could time him and he’d be spot on.
I wiggle in my chair, smoothing my dress and my hair. Then, just in case, I huff a breath into my palm to make sure it’s okay. Minty fresh.
Taking a quick glance around, I see three other women in blue. Uh-oh, how will Mark know which one is me?
I don’t get a chance to figure that out because a man comes up the winding staircase, and at first, what I see is a thick shock of nearly jet-black hair, definitely a business cut, with no hair touching the collar of a bright white shirt. He takes another step, and broad shoulders clad in a smoke-gray suit come into place, not so wide that he casts shadows when he walks, but strong and athletic.
I can feel my body start to yearn, and my core starts to yell yes! yes! yes! with every beat of my heart.
Another step, and he starts the turn that’ll bring him up to the café level, and my mind really, really needs to slow down. Still, it’s somewhere for my nervousness to go, and I eagerly anticipate his approach. He hits the landing, and as he turns this direction, I start to get up.
My knees become unhinged as he comes around a bookshelf and I see who he is. Not Mark.
Noah Daniels. My brother’s best friend.
Panicking, I duck my head down reflexively.
What is he doing here?
Oh, no! I can only imagine if Mark shows up right now and Noah sees us. He’ll for sure embarrass me and ruin the whole thing. And if he finds out that I used the app, the teasing will be even worse. I’ll never live it down! Even though there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s the sort of button a brother pushes on repeat just to get a rise out of you. And with Noah being his best friend? Button pushing times two.
I keep my head buried, snagging a newspaper from the next table over, and pretend to read. But Noah walks right by me. He does a double-take, and I see the smile fall from his face as he says, “Riley?”
I look up, and I can’t help but lift my lip in a sneered response. “Well, hello, Noah. Fancy seeing you here.”
What am I saying? Have I turned into some nineteen-forties Hollywood starlet? At least I can tell Mom that she doesn’t have to worry about my being too influenced by my ‘porn’ book choices. I’m suddenly so strait-laced, I feel like there’s a corset squeezing my insides into goo.
Noah doesn’t look fazed at all. If anything, he looks amused. “I suppose so. I’m meeting someone.”
“Me too,” I snip back, ruffling my stolen newspaper.
“Does River know?” he asks, one dark brow lifting harshly.
“What I do or don’t do, and who I do it with, is none of my brother’s business,” I tell him primly.
Why does Noah Daniels rub me the wrong way? I don’t even know him except from hearing stories from Arielle and River. We’ve barely met in passing! He came to Mom’s with River once and pissed me off and hurt my feelings with some stupid comments about my ‘sunny personality’.
I can’t put my finger on it, but he makes my skin feel like it’s on inside out and full of cactus barbs. I want to scratch and spit and bite back against everything he says. No one else makes me feel like that. I’m Riley Sunshine, after all, but he makes me feel like Riley Doom-and-Gloom.
His chuckle prickles over me, and I can feel my face flushing. “Who you do? I definitely think River would have an opinion on that.”
“You think Arielle cares who you . . . do?” I hadn’t meant it like that, but now that he said it, I won’t back away from the challenge of his words.
“Arielle would have an opinion on what I eat for breakfast, how often I shit, and whether I sleep on my right or left side. She would definitely care who I . . . fuck.”
Ooh, he’s upping the ante.
“Fine. They’d care, but not if they don’t know.” The threat is implied, or at least, I hope it is. “Now, if you’ll please excuse me.” I dismiss him, hoping that Mark hasn’t seen me talking to someone else. That’d be a definite faux pas on a first date.
“Sure, sure. Have a good . . . date,” Noah says, stumbling over the word. He looks around and sees a woman sitting at a table alone. He smiles broadly, something I’ve never seen him do. It changes his entire face from harsh and brooding to something brighter, and dare I say . . . happier?
Good for him, I think, though I feel sorry for her.
That’s tacky, Riley, I scold myself, not liking the ugly thought.
I can’t help but watch as Noah makes his way through the maze of tables. He takes a deep breath, his broad shoulders lifting and lowering as he straightens his back. Almost like he’s nervous.
But the great Noah Daniels does not get nervous. I know that much from River. He goes on and on about how stone-cold brilliant Noah is, getting entire boardrooms of people eating out of the palm of his hand with his brains by never leaving a single detail to chance. He’s a perfectionist to a dangerously unhealthy level, only leaving the office when River drags him out.
Arielle says Noah was a great big brother growing up, but as she’s gotten older, he forgets she’s a grown woman who does whatever the hell she wants, whenever she wants to. He’s always trying to talk her into getting a better-paying job, investing in mutual funds, and saving for a rainy day. As if he knows what she needs better than she does.
I might be being a bit dramatic, but I don’t hold Noah Daniels in high regard. He’s not a bad guy, he’s just an uptight, grumpy, money-driven one.
Noah comes around to face one of the other women sitting alone. I see his mouth move but can’t read what he says. The woman nods, gesturing to the chair, and Noah sits down with a smile.
Of course, his date’s already going great. He probably planned it that way.
Meanwhile, Mark said three minutes and it’s definitely been at least seven. I hope he’s not lost. I really hope he didn’t see me talking to Noah and leave. And more than anything, I hope he didn’t catch sight of me and bail.
I lick my lips. Nope, not thinking like that. No negativity. You don’t need that vibe for even a moment, Riley. Happy thoughts, positive thoughts.
Mark will come up the stairs any moment, see you, and it’ll be all sunshine and rainbows. A happy, ninety-six percent match. One River and Noah never need to know was assisted by their app.
Time drags, and I start to feel stupid. I mean, I ditched my socks, I ditched my Docs, and I got dressed up, only to apparently get stood up. In front of an audience, no less. Namely, Noah.
I’m about to get up and leave when I see Noah rise from the table with his date. She reaches out to him, and he shakes his head, thunder written on his face. Guess it’s not going so well, after all. His smile has disappeared as if it never was, to be replaced by his usual Grumpasaurus grimace.
Noah sits down at an empty table, fidgeting with his phone. He glances up, and his gaze spears through me, pinning me in place. Those dark eyes dare me to say one word about whatever messy mistake his date was.
I don’t feel any joy in that, though, so I offer a small smile of pity and go back to looking around. Should I wait any longer? Should I message Mark?
I know if I don’t message him, I’ll always wonder what happened, so I pull up my big girl panties—which, again, are clean, Mom!—and message him.
R: Get lost? I’m waiting in the café upstairs.
I watch my phone closely, needing an answer.
M: Me too.
Huh? I scan the room, looking for someone looking for me. Looking for a guy in a blue tie. Looking for someone who looks like their name is Mark, though I don’t know what that ‘looks’ like.
R: Where are you sitting? I got us a table, but I can come to you.
I watch the three dots appear and then . . .
M: Raise your hand, Rachel.
I blink. That would make it easier for Mark to find me, but it seems embarrassing somehow. I glance back at Noah, but he’s staring at his phone intently, probably deleting his date’s name and number.
Slowly, I raise my hand and scan the room, looking for my dark-haired stranger to make his way to me.
But no one is coming. I look around once more to find Noah’s eyes locked on me. For as dark as they are, they seem to shine bright in this light, lit from within by some type of fire. His jaw is tight as he grits his teeth. I watch, rapt, as he stands from the table and covers the space between us in marked strides.
Standing at my table, he growls, “Rachel?”
I see it then. Dark hair, perfectly knotted royal blue tie and suit, works too much, dedicated, and loyal. But Mark is also sweet and kind and funny. All things Noah is not.
Or at least not that I’ve ever seen.
“Noah? Or should I call you Mark? Is this some kind of prank? Did my brother put you up to this? Or Arielle?” I hiss. “No. This is over the line, way over the line. Even for them.”
My voice is getting louder, and I can feel eyes on me. Eyes I don’t need.
Without waiting for a response, I head for the stairs, trying not to run because I know I’ll trip and fall in these stupid heels. And wouldn’t that be the punchline in whatever joke Noah is trying to pull?
Poor, lonely Riley Sunshine, falling down the stairs after the worst first date in the history of ever.
I make it to my bug, but even the sight of the yellow car that always makes me smile does nothing for me.
Not him. Not Noah Daniels.