I took a slow sip of my coffee as the attractive man across from me went on excitedly about law school for the tenth full minute, hiding a tiny yawn with my mug. He was cute, and I didn’t really mind watching his mouth move; it was kind of fun to imagine his full lips doing something else. The longer he talked, the more I knew I didn’t want to be on a date with him.
It was easy to think about more than just his lips doing something else, but if I had to sit there and hear one more story about a case study, I was going to bury myself under a bookshelf. Hot Guy drummed his fingers on the table, bringing my attention back to our conversation.
“So? What do you think?” he asked, expecting an answer to a question I didn’t even hear him ask.
“Sorry, what? It was so hard to hear you over the music! Great band, right?” Hot Guy pulled his full lips into a thin line.
“Aiden, it’s one girl on a guitar singing folk songs. Poorly.”
I furrowed my brow, running a hand through my blond waves. Hot Guy wasn’t impressed as I mumbled my way through a few more excuses. Finally, he stood up and started putting on his jacket.
“Look, Aiden, I get that you’re busy with this open mic thing to bring more people into your already busy store, but you could at least pretend to care about the conversation.”
I stood up with him, reaching a hand out to stop him from zipping his coat and walking out.
He wasn’t exactly wrong, though. I’d been worried about nobody coming to open mic nights at my bookstore, but so many people started showing up that I had to keep the store open later, and it was hard to focus on business and pleasure at the same time without dating on the job.
“I’m not just pretending, Mike. It’s cool that you’re so into your work, but so am—”
“My name is Marc,” he interjected.
I let my mouth hang open unattractively. “Oh. Shit.”
The bell above the door chimed before I even registered that my date had walked out without taking his still-hot coffee. I let out a deep breath and sat back down, picking up Marc’s half-finished drink and tossing it into a trash can near our table.
“Wow,” said a soft voice from behind me as a hand came down on my shoulder. “That was probably the worst one so far.”
Oliver, my roommate and best friend of three years, and a regular at my store’s open mic nights, took the empty seat across from me. He wasn’t set to take the stage for another few minutes. I slumped forward to let my forehead thud gently on the table and covered my head with my hands.
“Why is every boy in this city so fucking boring? That was the fourth guy in two weeks! I couldn’t even remember his name.”
Oliver crossed his arms and bent down to mirror my pose across the table.
“When I’m stuck writing, it’s usually because I’m not really feeling what’s on the page.”
I lifted my head to meet Oliver’s eyes and put on my most tired expression. “It’s late and I’m too tired for a metaphor, Olly. What’s up?”
He started drumming at the table with a pen.
“I’m just saying that this isn’t the first guy whose name you’ve forgotten. You’re obviously over whatever your type has been since I’ve known you.” One of my employees came over to let Oliver know he was next up on stage as we both sat up straighter. Olly always felt like he was a split second from being whisked away by the hurricane that seemed to surround him, but I was glad to call him my best friend.
“Maybe you’re right,” I replied reluctantly. “I’ll catch you at home later. Don’t wait up; it’s gonna be a long night.” As Oliver walked off to take the stage, I left my table by the window to take over the cash register from a very frantic new employee who looked grateful for the break.
After ringing up the twentieth customer, I was starting to feel better about my night. Sure, every guy I’d dated in the last few months was the social equivalent of getting dry mouth from eating too many crackers, but at least my business was doing well. Well enough, anyway.
My eyes unfocused as I handed a bag back across the counter and thought about being married to piles of books. It couldn’t be any more boring than real life. If the stories were exciting enough, it could even be a happy marriage. I jumped at the sound of someone clearing his throat in front of me before a low voice broke me out of my sad daydream.
“Are you always such a shit date?”
I put on my meanest face, knitting my eyebrows together and clenching my jaw, but it half-fizzled as I took in the man on the other side of the counter. Marc had nothing on him. He was tall, taller than my six-foot-one, and had an angular face still flushed red from the heavy November wind outside. He wore stubble so well that it was hard to look away from the cut of his sharp jaw. Without meaning to, I wondered what it would feel like to be kissed by a man with features that looked so sharp.
“Come on, you have to say something. That went pretty bad for you. At least, it looked like it went pretty bad from the travel section.”
I leaned over the counter toward him, glancing quickly around the store for anyone else who might be eavesdropping. “Wait, what? Are you, like, spying on me?” I rested my elbows on the counter and tried to lean forward as imposingly as I could. I wasn’t exactly known for my intimidation skills. I leaned back again as the handsome man let out a booming laugh and frowned as I slid his book across the counter. Ringing him up would get rid of him faster. Tourist’s Guide to Reykjavik. Whatever. He didn’t look like he could afford a trip to Iceland.
“Hey, I didn’t mean to! It just looked like it might be going south, and I didn’t wanna miss my chance,” he said as he reached back to pull something from his back pocket. I couldn’t help but follow the arc of his hand as it moved toward his backside. The tight T-shirt he wore under his open jacket rode up to reveal a hint of chiseled muscle, and I felt myself begin to sweat.
“Enjoying the peep show?” he said with a wink. I hadn’t even seen him extend an arm to wiggle his credit card between two fingers, and I paled when I noticed his wide grin. Feeling myself getting red in the face, I quickly bagged his book and shoved the bag back across the counter.
“Enjoy your trip to Iceland,” I said through gritted teeth.
“Nah,” he replied casually. “Not yet. Don’t have anyone to go with who can keep up on a night out.” He flicked his thumb across the phone he held in one hand and picked up his bag with the other. Pocketing his phone, the handsome man zipped his jacket, pausing as he turned to leave the store. “Why not the guy at the mic right now? You seem cute together,” he said with a nod back toward Oliver, who was mid-read on stage.
I choked back an audible grunt. “We were better as friends, so we stayed that way. Have a great night.” I turned around to pull a pre-order off a shelf as the next customer in line handed over a receipt. The handsome stranger beamed at me as he backed out of the store.
“Good to know!”
He was gone before I could shout anything back. I quickly pulled an employee over to help the remaining customers as I stomped away from the register, noticing Oliver coming toward me off the stage. He must have seen the entire exchange while reading, but I didn’t feel much like talking to him about it. I kicked at a half-empty box of books in the back room, absently pacing as Oliver walked in not long after me. Before he could even get a word in, I snapped.
“I can’t fucking believe that guy! Did you—did you even hear him? As if he’d have a chance after a first impression like that?”
“Aiden, slow down,” Olly soothed. I shrugged his hand off my shoulder and kept pacing.
“YOU slow down! I never wanna see that guy in here again. He’s banned. He’s worse than banned. He’s forbidden,” I said, balling my hands into fists as I sat on an unopened box of books.
“Really? Forbidden? What are you gonna do, Aiden, post guards at the door?” Oliver sat cross-legged on the floor in front of me as my head sank deeper into my hands. I didn’t want him to see how red I was, even if it was already too late for that.
“You know, he was kinda cute,” Olly mused.
I had never whipped my head up to glare at someone so quickly before in my life.
“Are you joking? Tell me you’re joking. That guy was such a dick!” I could feel the corners of my mouth twitch as I said it. Oliver raised an eyebrow and leaned back, silent. “Ugh, okay, he was hot,” I said. “But he was hot and he knew it! That’s so…annoying.”
Oliver chuckled as he picked himself up off the floor and held out a hand to help me off my box.
“What do you think you were like when we met?”
“How dare you,” I replied as I got to my feet.
“Okay, maybe you weren’t such a dick about it, but you were definitely confident. You can’t tell me this guy really bothered you that much.”
As Oliver and I walked back out to the storefront, I kept my hands balled into fists. He was right. I wasn’t really upset about that guy’s attitude.
I was upset that fighting with him was exciting.
I was upset that I didn’t know his name.