***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Jasmine Guillory
Nik Paterson looked around at the perfect Los Angeles day: clear blue sky, bright green baseball field, warm sun shining down on the thousands of people with her at Dodger Stadium. There was only one thought on her mind: when can I get out of here?
Fisher was next to her, his blond man bun golden in the sun, laughing as he drank warm beer to celebrate his birthday. He and his buddies were talking about lifting, or their latest auditions, or their upcoming car purchases—all of the things his friends always talked about, all of the things Nik couldn't care less about. If she'd known this birthday outing was going to include a bunch of Fisher's friends, she would have at least gotten one of her girlfriends to come along so she would have someone to talk to.
Although to be fair, it was possible Fisher had told her his friends were coming and she hadn't been paying attention. She tended not to pay that much attention when Fisher talked, but then, she hadn't been dating him for the past five months for his conversational skills.
Nik looked back up at the scoreboard and sighed. It was still only the fifth inning; she probably had at least an hour, maybe an hour and a half, more of this.
She didn't have anything against baseball, exactly. It was just that she'd rather be spending this beautiful spring day at home with her laptop and a glass of bourbon on the rocks than outside at a baseball stadium with a warm beer. But when the hot dude you were sleeping with wanted to go to a Dodgers game for his birthday, you sucked it up and went along with him and his bros.
She sighed again and reached for her phone. Maybe she could get some work done as she sat there.
Just as she was starting to make some actual progress on a draft of an article, Fisher nudged her hard.
"Nik! Put your phone down, you can't miss this!" He threw his arm around her and kissed her on the cheek. She pressed save and tucked her phone back in her pocket. His favorite baseball player must be coming up to bat or something.
She looked down at the field, but nothing was going on there. She followed Fisher's pointed finger and looked up at the scoreboard, just in time to see on the screen:
NICOLE: I LOVE YOU. WILL YOU MARRY ME? FISHER.
She turned to Fisher, her mouth wide open.
"What the hell is going on?"
To her horror, he dropped down onto one knee, on top of the peanut shells that carpeted the concrete, dangerously close to the puddle of spilled beer.
Oh God. He had a ring box in his hand.
"Nikole." He tucked a strand of hair behind his ear and opened the ring box. She averted her eyes. "Will you make me the happiest man in the world?"
Was she asleep? This definitely felt like a nightmare.
They'd only been dating for five months! That he loved her was news to her—he'd certainly never said that before—but a proposal? He didn't even know how to spell her name!
She tried to put on a smile, but she'd never had the best poker face—except, strangely, when she was actually playing poker. Not even his best friends would call Fisher perceptive, but even he could tell something was off with his happy moment.
"Nik, did you hear me? You're just standing there. You haven't even put the ring on!"
"I don't . . ." She cleared her throat and tried to talk in a low voice, so the whole damn stadium couldn't tell what was going on. "It's just that we've never discussed this. We aren't really in a place to . . . I didn't . . . I just wish you'd brought this up before . . . before now."
"Are you saying no?"
He was still on one knee, good God.
"I'm saying this isn't really the place to have this conversation."
He just stared at her, wide-eyed.
"Are you saying no?" he repeated.
She took a deep breath.
"I'm trying not to say that out loud so everyone can hear me."
She was still hoping this was some sort of a joke. That any minute, he would reveal this was for a commercial or even a reality show or something, and they would all laugh and go back to not paying attention to the game.
"Come on, Nik," Fisher said. Why wouldn't he stand up? "We're great together! Live a little! Give us a shot!"
Live a little??? Was he approaching marriage like he would a spontaneous trip to Palm Springs for the weekend?
"Fisher. Don't do this."
"I can't believe you're doing this to me." He snapped the ring box closed, stood up, and tossed his head. The head toss didn't work as well when his hair was in the bun. "Rejecting me in public! On my birthday! What kind of a person are you?"
He stormed off and ran up the stadium stairs. So she guessed this wasn't a joke then.
She looked at his bros, and his bros looked at her. They shook their heads like they were disappointed in her, turned, and filed out of the row after him.
Which left Nik alone to face the forty-five thousand pairs of eyes on her.
Carlos nudged his sister Angela as the blond dude and his bros stalked up the stairs and out of the stadium.
"Now I know what to tell your boyfriend not to do."
Angela rolled her eyes.
"Nice try, but I don't have a boyfriend."
Damn. She consistently refused to let him meet guys she was dating, so he was reduced to trying to trick her into admitting she had a boyfriend. Either he never managed to catch her off guard enough to admit it, or she'd never had a boyfriend since he started trying this. He was betting on the former.
Granted, he never told Angie anything about the women he went out with, either, but that was different. He hadn't dated anyone seriously in years, and none of the women he had minor interludes with these days mattered enough to meet his sister.
"You have one good point," Angela said. "Anyone dating me should definitely not do that." Angela's hand gestures got bigger as she talked. "She said they hadn't discussed it. Who proposes to someone if they haven't discussed it? Especially in public?"
He looked back down at the woman—Nicole—now alone in her row. She'd sat back down and was typing something on her phone. The sun picked out the golden highlights in her dark curly hair. She was doing a very good job of pretending the whole stadium wasn't talking about her.
"I feel so bad for her." He couldn't believe she hadn't jumped up to flee the building. The game had started back up again, but no one was watching. Everyone was looking at her. Including Carlos.
"So do I," Angela said.
Nicole twirled one of her curls around her finger and pretended to watch the game. Carlos realized he was staring at her and forced himself to look away.
He turned to Angela and shook his head.
"I get trying to make a big romantic gesture and all, and wanting a surprise, but . . ."
"Deciding to spend your life together shouldn't be a surprise," Angela said. "It should be something the two of you talk about first!"
"Oh, hey, speaking of," he said. "Did I tell you Drew proposed to his girlfriend a few days ago?"
"Really? That's fantastic. I never would have thought a year ago that your friend Drew would be engaged." She looked up at the JumboTron, and then at Carlos. "She did say yes, right?"
"She did. But then, they'd talked about it first."
Carlos looked back down at the woman two rows down, who had not said yes. She was aggressively not looking at anyone around her. Her hair moved in the breezes that blew through the stadium, and her dark brown skin glowed in the sun. He'd only seen her face briefly up on the JumboTron, until he'd realized that this real-life drama was going on just ten feet below him, but he'd seen a striking face, with big dark eyes and bright red lips. He wondered how long she was going to stay at her seat. She probably hadn't wanted to leave right away for fear of running into the man-bun guy, which made sense. But if he knew anything about the way things happened in L.A., if she sat here too long, she was in danger of . . .
Yep, there it was. The camera crew.
He poked his sister. She looked down and saw the problem immediately.
"Oh my God, what a nightmare," she said.
"We've got to save her," he said.
"How do you propose to do that? Pun not intended."
"Follow my lead." He stood up and made his way out of their row, Angie right behind him.
He walked down the wide stadium stairs, his eyes on the field. When he got two rows down, he paused and glanced to the side. I hope this works, he thought, before he went in.
"Nicole? Nicole, it is you!" he said, loud enough that not only she and the entire camera crew but also the other rows around them all turned to look. "Angela, look, it's Nicole! We haven't seen you for . . . my God, how many years has it been?"
Angela took up his prompt as Carlos pushed the camera crew aside to get to Nicole.
"At least five years, Carlos, it's got to be? Nicole, how are you?" His sister threw her arms around the grinning woman, and whispered something in her ear before the embrace ended.
"It's so great to see you after all this time!" Angela said. She looked around with a huge smile on her face, and appeared to notice the camera crew for the first time. "Oh my goodness, are we interrupting something? I am so sorry, guys!" She smiled at the three men who had surrounded Nicole up until about thirty seconds before, with that wide-eyed look that had never failed to make men fall at her feet. "We haven't seen each other for so long, imagine running into you here."
"Oh wow, how do you know each—"
Carlos stepped in front of the guy with the camera. If the dude got aggressive, well, Carlos was pretty sure he had at least four inches and thirty pounds on him.
"We were just heading to get more beer and Dodger Dogs, want to come with?"
Want to come with? He sounded like one of his sixteen-year-old patients.
"Great idea, I'm starving." Nicole wiggled past the cameraman. "Chat with you guys later!" she called back to them, as she, Carlos, and Angie raced up the stairs.
Hmmm, apparently, sounding like your sixteen-year-old patients was a way to not seem suspicious.
They kept up the pretense on their way up the stairs, all saying things like "Wow, it's been so long!" and "Fancy meeting you here!" and "I couldn't believe my eyes that it was you!" over and over. When they finally got all the way up the stairs and inside, the three of them all leaned against the nearest wall and erupted with laughter.
"Thank you guys SO MUCH for saving me," Nicole said when she finally stopped laughing. "I was in the middle of trying to remember the martial arts moves I learned twenty years ago, but you rescued me without me having to knock someone down or, more likely, embarrass myself."
"You're not saved yet," Carlos said. He put his hand on her back and grabbed his sister by the arm. "We've got to get you out this stadium. They'll find you again if you stick around."
"Oh, I can find my own way out. I'm sure you want to get back to the game." She stood up straight and smiled at them. "But thank you again, I really appreciate it."
He was about to say good-bye when he thought of something.
"Did you drive here? Or was your . . . or did you get a ride?"
"My ride seems to be long gone, but I'm sure there's another way to get back to Silver Lake from here. Isn't there a shuttle or something? Or I can get a ride. I have all of those apps."
He and Angie exchanged glances. He envisioned her waiting in the parking lot at Dodger Stadium for a ride and getting ambushed again. He bet Angie did, too.
"Silver Lake is in our direction," he said. "We can give you a ride back." He could miss the rest of the game. It wasn't like they were playing the Giants or anything.
She raised her eyebrows at him and turned to Angela to shake her head.
"No, seriously, that's okay. You don't have to give up the rest of the game for me; you don't even know me. Plus, you two probably have better things to do than drive a stranger around Los Angeles."
Angela looked confused and then laughed.
"Oh wait, did you think we were on a date? Ugh no, he's my brother. Trust me, I'd rather be driving you around L.A. than watching baseball with him."
Nicole looked at Carlos.
"Are you sure? You really don't have to."
He grinned and threw his arm around both women.
"Call it my good deed for the week," he said. "Come on, let's go before those vultures follow you."