Christopher / NOT THE GIRL YOU MARRY
On the third day of ninth grade, Jack Nolan asked Maggie Doonan to be his date to the Leo Catholic freshman dance. He blackmailed his older brother, Michael, into dressing up as a chauffeur and driving them in their father’s baby-shit-colored Lincoln Town Car. Then he sweet-talked Mrs. Jankowski at the flower shop into finding lilacs in Chicago, in September, just because Maggie’s sister had told him that they were Maggie’s favorite flower.
After that, Maggie Doonan hadn’t needed any more convincing that he was the perfect half-formed man for her. And the fact that he was an actual, honest-to-God choirboy had convinced Maggie’s father not to even bother threatening him with the shotgun that still resided in the Doonans’ front closet.
At the time, Jack had no idea what kind of power he had unlocked.
Two years later, he and Maggie had sullied the back seat of the baby-shit-colored Lincoln Town Car in unspeakable ways. And, two years of near constant shagging after that, he’d watched her get in her parents’ SUV to leave him for Harvard.
Watching Maggie’s tearstained face drive into the distance had broken Jack’s heart. But he’d been the only guy in his high school friend group to leave for college with valuable sexual experience not involving his right hand.
Still, he’d been sad.
Until he met Katie Leong during the third hour of freshman orientation at the University of Michigan. She’d winked at him while they’d learned the fight song at some stupid mixer for first-year students. That wink had hooked straight into Jack’s dick and driven him to be the best college boyfriend ever—midnight burritos, romantic two a.m. walks to and from the library, and oral sex at least three times a week—six times during finals. Hell, he’d even started working for the school paper because Katie was going to be a journalist when she grew up.
The only thing about his relationship with Katie that had stuck past her semester in Paris, and her subsequent new relationship with some French douche named Julian, was his career in journalism and a broken heart.
But the broken heart had lasted only a few months—until he’d met Lauren James, his favorite ex-girlfriend. She was off-the-wall funny and could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch.
He and Lauren had lasted through their senior year at Michigan and a shitty apartment with six roommates in the Bronx while he’d studied for his master’s at Columbia and she’d waited tables at a craptastic Midtown tourist trap and raced to and from off-off-Broadway auditions.
Lauren hadn’t even dumped him when he’d moved home to Chicago for a shiny new job. She’d saved her tips and flown out twice a month until she’d met a British director who wanted to cast her in an all-female West End production of Waiting for Godot.
You’re the best man I know, Jack. Such a great guy. I’ll never have another boyfriend like you.
No, she wouldn’t. Because she married the prick director after the very brief run of the show. That British guy hadn’t been a Boy Scout, and he for sure didn’t know all the best sex knots to tie.
As he stood at the bar of a speakeasy in Wicker Park, after waiting fifteen minutes for an artisanal old-fashioned made with, like, artisanal cherries and orange peels scraped off with the bartender’s artisanal hipster fingernails or some shit, he’d been without a girlfriend for six months. It was the longest he’d ever gone, and that was why his buddies had thought it was a good idea for him to leave his couch—and the Michigan–Notre Dame game—to sit around and talk to them in public.
He should be working tonight. In addition to not having a girlfriend, he didn’t have the illustrious journalism career he’d dreamed of. In a recent pivot to video, he’d become the online magazine’s how-to guy. His boss told him he was “too handsome to break real news,” but more important, he would be laid off if he didn’t shift with the times.
Now his father grumbled about him “not having a real job” every time he saw him, and Jack kept his mouth shut because he was living in a condo his family owned. If he lost his not-real job, not only would he have to hold his tongue around dear old Dad, he would have to wear a sandwich board on the corner. Or worse, work with his dad. While his father could deal with his working a job outside of the family construction business, he wouldn’t be underwriting Jack’s lifestyle if he got fired.
He loved his father—looked up to him—but they would kill each other if they had to work together.
So, he was here with his buddies, trolling for ideas for his next bullshit column. Chris and Joey could be his guinea pigs for whatever he came up with. He’d grown up with them; they’d all graduated from Leo together. Unlike him, they were knuckleheads about women. The idea that they would need to stage some sort of intervention with him over the nonexistent state of his love life was freaking preposterous. As demonstrated by the fact that they were wearing suits for a Saturday night out in the hipster hell that was Wicker Park, so they could stand around a bar that served overpriced, fussy drinks while looking at their phones and not talking to any of the women actually in the room.
Neither of them understood that for the first time since Maggie Doonan had put her hand down his pants under the bleachers at the freshman dance, he was kind of happy being alone. He could finally do the kind of shit that he liked—watch the game with a beer or five, sleep until noon, bring bread into the house without ruining someone’s gluten-free cleanse.
For the first time in his adult life, he was figuring out what he liked instead of contorting himself into the kind of guy Maggie, Katie, or Lauren needed. And he meant to go on that way.
Just the other day, he’d been thinking about getting a dog. Some slobbery beast—like a mastiff or a Saint Bernard. Lauren hated dogs. Which probably should have been his first clue that the relationship was doomed.
Still, he scanned the dark bar to see whatever other unfortunate souls found themselves ripped from the warm embrace of their college sports or Netflix queues. No one looked quite as miserable as him, though. Not a single one of the long-bearded hipsters littering the red leather couches and old-timey booths looked like he’d flash a nun for a beer on tap.
Looking around, he thought maybe his next video could be How to Not Ruin a Saturday Night Paying for $15 Drinks at a Douche-Magnet Bar. Name needed work.
His gaze stopped right next to Chris and Joey on the ass of a woman in a tiny black dress that didn’t match her gray moccasins. He didn’t give a shit about her sartorial choices because there was so much velvet-soft-looking light-brown skin between the shoes, which looked as though they’d seen better days, and the bottom of that dress, which made Jack’s lungs feel like they were going to combust. He hadn’t even seen her face yet, but he knew that she was like whisky in woman form; he felt his judgment cloud and high-minded ideas about bachelorhood vacate the premises. In his head, she was already like the first puff of a cigar. Just her gorgeous legs made his throat itch and burn. Forty or so inches of skin had him choking on lust.
Thank freaking Christ the bartender showed up again with his drink. Jack knocked twice on the bar and, not taking his eyes off Legs, said, “Put it on Chris Dooley’s tab.” Jack was about to lose his wits to a woman, and it was all his friends’ fault for making him leave the house. They were buying his drinks for the rest of the night.
He made his way back to Chris and Joey, still looking at their goddamned phones and not at the beauty next to them. No wonder they were constantly swiping and never actually meeting any of the bots populating most dating apps face-to-face. And no wonder Chris had been single since dumping Jack’s sister, Bridget, a year and a half ago. They didn’t pay attention.
Considering the sister dumping, maybe Jack should have drowned Chris in the kiddie pool when they were five.
But if they were aware of their surroundings, maybe Chris or Joey would be the guy getting to talk to Legs, and Jack would be left holding his dick. So, thank Christ his friends were idiots.
It wasn’t until he was a few feet away that he noticed the other women with Legs. Both of the other women were knockouts, but they didn’t rate for him. Jack had homed in on Legs, and he would not be deterred.
Maybe he could figure out how to keep things casual with Legs for the first three months or so. He doubted it. Once he’d tasted a little bit of a girl’s magic, Jack didn’t like to date around. He enjoyed flirting as much as the next guy, but he was—in essence—a commitment-phile. He liked having a girlfriend.
Maybe he and Legs could get a dog. He could compromise and live with a French bulldog. Small and cute, but still a real dog.
“Are you guys both swiping?”
“Yeah.” Joey swiped left. “But I’m coming up empty.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Because of his affinity for having one lady for years at a time, Jack had never been on a dating app. He didn’t see the appeal. If he’d met Maggie on an app, he wouldn’t have been able to figure out that the lotion she wore smelled like lilacs. He wouldn’t have known that Katie’s singing voice rivaled that of an angry tomcat, but that it was so charming he didn’t care. He’d never have clocked Lauren’s sassy walk across the stage in the production of Hello, Dolly! that he’d been reviewing for the Michigan Daily when he’d first seen her.
And he would have seen Legs’s face first. To be honest, a picture of her face might be the only thing in the “pro” column for online dating. He needed to see if her face would captivate him as much as her rocking body did.
“It means he’s not matching with any of the hot girls,” Chris piped in as he swiped right multiple times. “I swipe right on everyone so that I get more matches.”
“But he matches with mostly dogs,” Joey said. “I’m not looking to get caught up with a girl so ugly I gotta put a bag over her head.”
Yeah, he definitely should have drowned both Chris and Joey twenty years ago. Instead of clocking both of them, he pointed an angry finger in their faces. “Both of you are nothing to look at yourselves so you get what you get.”
He ran his finger under his collar, longing for his worn Michigan football T-shirt instead of a stupid button-down. It was damn sweaty in this goddamned hole of a bar that didn’t have decent beer or a television.
“Yeah, you’ll eat your words when you’re forced to swim in the waters of Tinder, loser.” Chris pointed back at him, finally looking up from his phone. “Then you’ll realize that it’s kill or be killed. The women on here are either bots or butt ugly.”
That had to be the moment when Legs turned around. Jack could tell by the look on her—beautiful, gorgeous, absolutely perfect—face that she’d heard every word that his asshole, knuckle-dragging squad of buffoons had just said. Her eyes were so narrowly squinted that he couldn’t tell what color they were. Her nose wrinkled up and her red-lacquered lips compressed with anger. Couldn’t hide the fact that she was a knockout from all the angles. Not even with a raised middle finger partially obscuring her face.
She was like a sexy, rabid raccoon. And he was a goner.
Some dipshit with twinkling green eyes wasn’t going to stop Hannah Mayfield from raining holy hell on the bros swiping left on the girls standing right next to them. Two of whom happened to be her best friends.
His tousled dirty-blond hair and the muscles straining his shirt’s buttons didn’t make her want to throw a drink in his face any less, and they weren’t about to stop her from curb stomping his buddies. Didn’t matter that the goofy fucking smile on his face said he couldn’t read the room. She was about to de-ball all three of these assholes, and he was smiling. Maybe he was missing more brain cells than the average young professional man in Chicago—which is to say all of them.
“What the hell is your problem?”
Stupid-Sexy Green Eyes answered even though she’d turned her glare on his two bozo friends. “I didn’t say anything.”
No, his deep voice, which rolled over her with the subtlety of a Mack truck, wasn’t one that had been calling all the women on Tinder, including her friends, dogs. But that didn’t stop her from saying, “Well, then. Keep yourself busy sucking a bag of dicks while I disembowel your two friends here.”
Although that was a harsh statement to lob at an innocent bystander, she couldn’t risk showing any weakness in the face of the enemy. And all men were the enemy. Especially the pretty ones who looked at her like she was their favorite slice of cake. Those were the especially dangerous ones: the ones who could seep into her heart, which made it much harder when they left. And they always left—usually because they just didn’t want anything serious right now.
“Why are you so angry?” He seemed genuinely perplexed, and honestly, she didn’t know why she was so angry, either. It wasn’t like she was on dating apps anymore. She’d given it the college try, but every petty humiliation suffered on those apps felt like a stab to the gut. And even when she’d met a few guys for drinks, she’d felt like she’d been at the worst audition for the worst reality show in the world. She didn’t understand how people ever actually made it to sex with someone they’d never met before.
Probably drinks. Lots and lots of drinks.
“I’m pissed because they”—she pointed at Sasha and Kelly—“forced me to come to this hipster nightmare for drinks after I’d been working all damned day.” She’d only been guilted into it because Kelly, a management consultant, was in town for the first time in months.
“The shoes.” Green Eyes’s gaze dipped to her feet.
“Not your business.” She hated how warm his slow perusal of her made her feel, as though he’d already seen her naked. It was creepy, and she ought to have called him out. And the warmth melted some of her righteous indignation on behalf of her friends. Not the plan here.
“Working on a Saturday?”
“Spent all day dealing with a bridezilla?” He took a sip of his drink, and she didn’t roll her eyes at his stupid, sexist comment. The amber liquid rolling from the glass to his mouth was much more fascinating.
“That’s a dumb, sexist thing to say when I’m already pissed.” As if the only thing that event planners did was plan weddings. True, she wanted to plan weddings because that was where the money was, but she did so much more.
Then the stupid asshole smiled at her again. “Back to that.”
She was surprised that at least half the panties in the room didn’t incinerate under the force of his grin. Good God. He was so pretty that it hurt. Features cut from stone and stubble not quite artful enough to be on purpose. Drinking bourbon with his shirtsleeves rolled up. He was citified masculinity that wasn’t quite civilized. A contradiction, and the kind of thing Hannah went crazy for. The dimples that bisected the stubble had a feral quality that made her want to touch him.
He’d moved a little closer since she’d turned around ready to tear his buddies apart. They’d retreated, but he’d advanced. It was kind of sexy that he wasn’t afraid of her, that he didn’t buy her painstakingly cultivated bitchy exterior. His lack of fear was working on her in a major way, and that terrified her. After Noah, she’d sworn to herself that she wouldn’t be foolish enough to believe that someone could want her for something other than a few rolls between the sheets, and a Hey, babe, that was fun, but I’m just not looking for a girlfriend right now.
Because they were never looking for a girlfriend, especially not her as a girlfriend.
That didn’t hurt anymore. It didn’t. She’d accepted that she was just not the kind of girl men romanced. With her ethnically ambiguous looks, bawdy sense of humor, and filthy mind, men wanted to have sex with her. And then—once they realized that she wasn’t entirely domesticated—they wanted her to disappear.
She had to remind herself of this, make it her mantra whenever this man was near. Never forget that men were the enemy, regardless of how friggin’ sexy his smile was.
He stepped even closer, leaving only half a foot of space between them. Hannah clocked Kelly and Sasha in her peripheral vision. They’d moved over to one of the stand-up tables.
Great. Neither of them believed her when she said that she was done with dating and romance and men for good. Their seeing her charmed by the prime cut of Chicago man-meat in front of her would not do at all. And yet, she couldn’t seem to turn around and run away.
Maybe she should slap him. He hadn’t done anything slap-worthy, but he had her cornered. In the middle of a crowded bar, with multiple options for egress, she was pinned in place because he’d smiled at her.
“What’s your name?” His voice softened, and she broke eye contact.
She looked around; his friends had made themselves scarce as well. “Hannah.” She looked at his chest when she told him. Meeting his gaze was too intimate and it made her cheeks flush.
That was a very good name. It made her think of hard liquor and sex.
“Of course you are.” Damn, he smelled delicious. Like freshly showered man draped in freshly laundered shirt. With a little bit of citrus and bourbon on his breath. It was like a lethal dose of bro, but it appealed to her despite her struggle to maintain her antipathy along with her dignity.
His laugh surprised her. “Hannah, tell me something.”
She didn’t respond but made eye contact again. Mistake.
“Can I get you another drink?”
She looked down to the mostly melted ice and rye in her glass. It would be stupid to have a drink with him. If she spent any more time in his aura of good-natured all-American Chicago boy, she would think about him for months. She’d wonder if she’d been too harsh and why he didn’t call. Because if she didn’t leave right now, she was going to give him her number.
Green-eyed Jack was looking at her as though he was starved for her. He would ask for her number so he could try to sweet-talk her into no-strings-attached sex—if he didn’t come right out and ask her if she wanted to bone that night. That was probably what he would do. If he did, he was so tempting to look at, and so not fooled into thinking that she was ready to hate him solely because he was a man, she would do it.
Then he still wouldn’t call, and it would be even worse than if he was just some guy she’d talked to in a bar one night.
If she left now, she could be home in time and sober enough to pretend he was attached to her favorite vibrator. His tongue swept over his lower lip, and he must have taken her silence for assent. Large, blunt fingertips brushed her smaller ones as he took her glass.
He motioned to the bartender for another round without leaving her side. Probably sensing that she would leave if he gave her an iota of the space that she ought to crave.
“I don’t date.” It was only fair to warn him that she was done— so done.
He looked back at her. “Neither do I.”
“I mean, seriously. I don’t—um—” She just had to tell him that she didn’t date, and she also didn’t do the random hookup thing. Wouldn’t be going home tonight and feeling his skin against hers. She hadn’t clocked the light dusting of chest hair through the small opening at the collar of his shirt.
“We’re just having a drink, Hannah.” He smiled again when he passed her a fresh tumbler of rye. “Think of it as an apology from my friends.”
“Why are you apologizing for them?”
“I don’t talk like that about women.”
But she was sure that he thought that way about women. He was young, handsome, and well built. His watch and the quality of his clothes said he wasn’t obscenely wealthy, but he probably lived relatively well. His straight white teeth said that his parents had been able to afford braces. So while he was smart enough not to seem like an asshole whose interest in her would be limited to a one-night stand or a string of booty calls, there was no way that he saw someone who would bust his balls every day at the end of his dating tunnel. Too bad she would really enjoy busting his balls.
“But I’m sure you think that way.”
“No.” His face hardened, and he took a drink. “I don’t. My friends are assholes, but I think those apps make it easy to be.”
“They turn people into commodities.”
“Exactly.” One cheek muscle flexed, and the dimple was back. She wondered what he’d do if she put her fingertip in it. “You shouldn’t shop for a partner like you shop for groceries.”
Advice wasted on her. “I don’t do that. I told you, I don’t date.”
“I don’t do the apps, either.”
That surprised her. But then again, he’d never be standing here with her if he did. With the face and the muscles and the nice-guy veneer, he could have been getting a half-decent blow job instead of shooting his shot with her. “Why not? You’d do well.”
Although she’d hoped she’d kept her voice neutral enough that he wouldn’t take her genuine desire to know why he wasn’t on Tinder as a compliment, he totally did. “Are you saying I’m handsome, Hannah?”
She really liked the way her name sounded coming out of his mouth. Way too much for her own good. “You know what you look like, Jack.”
The audacity of his wink had her fighting to keep from smiling at him. Even if he wasn’t a total jerk, there wasn’t room for both her and his easily stroked ego in this dank basement meat market. She drained her drink and put the glass on the bar. Reaching inside her purse, she pulled out a twenty and held it out to him.
“For the drink.”
“The drink was an apology.”
“But that apology came with strings.”
Then she did roll her eyes. “You’re wasting your time.”
“I don’t see it as a waste.”
She’d just bet he didn’t. He liked that she was a challenge. “We’re not going to”—she lowered her voice and leaned into him—“you know, do it.”
He choked on his cocktail, and she barely fought the desire to bump his back until his windpipe cleared. Let him drown in his old-fashioned. If he died ignominiously, she wouldn’t have to think about him tomorrow or next week and wonder if he wasn’t a shithead of the same brand as every other man in this city.
Unfortunately for future Hannah, he caught his breath. “I never asked you for sex.”
Her cheeks flushed. Maybe he really was just apologizing. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” His hand cupped her upper arm, good humor back on his face. “I’m flattered that you were thinking about getting naked with me.”
“I wasn’t.” She shook her head and looked down at her shoes. The gray moccasins she’d thrown on after the last of the Lurie Children’s Hospital people had left the event she’d thrown today for some local NFL players who had wanted to give a whole boatload of money to kids with cancer. They were terribly ugly, but her feet would have fallen off had she kept her heels on for ten more seconds. “I didn’t think about that at all.”
“I must be losing my touch, then.” He wasn’t. One smile and he’d melted part of her shell. A touch on her arm burned her skin through her dress. “I just wanted to apologize and share a drink with someone not staring at their phone.”
“Oh.” He couldn’t seem to stop surprising her.
“But I was definitely thinking that I’d be lucky to get naked time with someone like you.”
There it was. Jack was lethally sexy, dangerous to her equilibrium. The flutter in her lower belly just from being near him would lay waste to her inner peace, such as it was.
“I don’t do that, either.” Part of her hoped that he would argue with her. Try to convince her. She waited a beat for him to respond. When he didn’t, she adjusted her over-the-shoulder bag and shifted away from him. “I’ve got to go.”
He swigged back the rest of his drink and winced. It was kind of adorable on him—this totally gorgeous, seemingly self-contained man not used to the burn of bourbon in his throat. The contrast between his manly appearance and that slight show of weakness attracted her even more. Her hesitation at this point was pure self-preservation.
“I’ll walk you out.”
“There’s really no need.”
He took her arm again, and she was sorely tempted to shake him off and maybe stomp on his foot. She was just about to, she swore, when he said, “There’s a taco truck outside, and my stomach will hate me tomorrow if I don’t eat something.”
“That many drinks?” No wonder he was flirting with her. In her experience, guys like him did not flirt with women like her unless they were drunk or trying to slake their curiosity about dating a biracial girl.
Like Joe Osborne, the insanely good-looking but profoundly lazy stoner she’d dated sophomore year. He’d been into new experiences in general—mostly drugs, loose women, and never finishing a paper on time—but she’d mistaken his curiosity about her for genuine interest. Too bad that curiosity had never extended to whether she’d enjoyed their hookups. A few dozen orgasms might have made the shocked look on his mother’s face when he’d introduced them over parents’ weekend a little bit worth it.
Since her father had evaporated as soon as the pregnancy test came back positive, and her mother had been busy working to pay for her education, she’d been on her own with Joe’s family. For two days, she was subjected to the I’m Trying to Prove I’m Not Racist variety show. At multiple points, she’d wanted to stop Mr. and Mrs. Osborne from talking about all their black friends and tell them she believed them. But that would have made them even more uncomfortable. Considering their son’s lack of sexual prowess and the fact that he was probably going to flunk out once Hannah stopped pressing send on his papers, she spared them and broke up with Joe as they were driving away.
Which brought her to Jack. He was probably just drunk enough to step outside of his comfort zone to hit on her. Once he sobered up and/or figured out that she was pretty much just like the white girls he dated, only she would make his parents feel weird, she’d never hear from him again.
“Nope.” He bent down close enough that his breath touched her ear when he said, “I just want to spend more time with you. Buy you a taco and see if you’ll give me your number.”