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Tell Me You Love Me: A Novel by S. Ann Cole (1)


One - Serena

 “You’re a Redhead.”

 

 

Location:

New York

 

 

 

My date is late.

Nineteen minutes late.

I could have overlooked a bit of tardiness, had I been on time. But I showed up fifteen minutes late. On purpose. My plan was to check out Blind Date 23’s looks from the entrance before deciding whether I wanted to keep the date or blow it off.

This might sound superficial, but aesthetics is number one on the list. The mission I’m on is momentous, painstaking, cautious, and shamelessly superficial.

It would appear, however, that Blind Date 23 either had the same idea, or I’m being stood up. Which would be unprecedented.

I’m Serena Bentley. I don’t get stood up.

Yet as another ten minutes sweep by, I resist the urge to sink low in my seat, the chip on my shoulder shrinking with each ticking second.

I’ll be damned. I am being stood up, aren’t I?

I grab my phone and, with furious fingers, tap out a text to my match-maker.

 

Serena: Swear to God, I’m gonna kill you, Ric! Mr. Perfect Match is a no-show.

Alaric: What? I spoke to him about 30mins ago. Said he was 5 mins away.

Serena: Well, he’s not. And I got here 15-mins late.

Alaric: Hang on. Lemme call him.

 

Alaric Elias. My bestest. Who I’m going to strangle when I see him.

Sparks is a private matchmaking company which he owns. Blind date pairing for the rich and indifferent. With categories ranging from “Commitment” to “Fling”. I’m in a category that doesn’t exist at Sparks. A customized category, with extra fees for special, meticulous attention.

I don’t want commitment.

I don’t want casual.

I don’t want a fling.

I want…a baby.

Not a baby from a plastic cup and syringe, induced by a porn magazine and a tight fist, but a baby made from lust, passion, and intense physical attraction. Not love. Just genuine lust. Sex with real orgasms.

Don’t make that face at me. I have my reasons.

The unwitting donor has to be hot. Has to be. And smart, along with all the other factors that go without saying, of course, such as no history of mental illness.

There’s no one I trust to guarantee me all of that in one package but Alaric Elias.

Sparks is confidential and holds an eighty-nine percent success rate. Most clients find their match within the first to third date. But me? I’m picky. Much to Alaric’s irritation.

Were I in “Fling,” I would’ve gone home with Blind Date #1. He was sex incarnate, but dumb. Were I in “Commitment,” I would’ve gone home with Blind Date #3. He was perfect husband material, but a control freak. Choosing the potential father of your child, however, is not that easy. He needs to be…everything.

The crazy thing is, my dates are completely ignorant of my intentions. Most are from “Casual.” Casuals are the safest bet, the ones most likely to cringe at words like “marriage” and “children” and “future”. The ones who will run instead of “step-up”. Not that I plan on letting the potential candidate know when I’m knocked-up. Casuals are such a safe bet that all you have to do is ghost them to end things. They will never come looking and that’s exactly what I want.

The waiter, a flustered young man, appears at my alcove, again. Red cheeks, chin zit, small eyebrow scar. “W-will it be just you, after all, Miss Bentley? Is there anything else I can get you? If you prefer, we could relocate you to one of the solo alcoves which comes equipped with a flat-screen.”

Freaking Manhattan. Of course they would have a singles alcove with cable TV to make people feel even more alone and pathetic than they already are.

“I’m perfectly fine where I am, thank you.”  I give him a withering glare.  “And yes, it’ll be just me. Bring me your best bottle of Malbec.”

“Thank you, Miss Bentley—I mean, you’re welcome—Oh crap, I mean, at your service—Christ, I—”

“Stop talking,” I say, keeping my voice gentle. I’m used to this kind of reaction from New Yorkers.

With a sheepish smile, he mumbles out an apology and scurries off like a frightened mouse.

I shake my head and check my phone. Still nothing from Alaric.

Irritated, I sit back and scan the restaurant as I sip a glass of water. Alaric’s chosen meet-up locations are usually secluded, intimate, high-end establishments that promise security and peace of mind. This restaurant is just that.

While there are main floor seats, there’s also the option of alcove seats for those who prefer another layer of privacy. There’s even a string that, if tugged, would cause a sheer curtain to fall for added isolation. For me, this place is perfection.

My idle observing comes to a stop at the steps that lead up to the alcoves section. There, being led by the hostess, is a swaggering man who, if the word playboy came with an accompanying image in the dictionary, would be the perfect representation.

I scoff and take another sip of water, condensation dampening my fingertips. But I don’t—can’t—stop looking.

Playboy’s hair is so platinum-blond it’s almost metallic, yet his eyebrows and groomed facial hair are a deep dark brown. Such a dangerously beautiful contrast. Bold, daring, fierce, as if he’s some kind of trend-setting runway model, or something.

A prominent, angular jaw and full, kissable lips with a little puckered point on the upper lip. Brown dress shoes, dark denims with a ripped hole on one knee, brown belt to complement the shoes, and tucked-in white dress-shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Tall, built with the right proportion of lean muscle for his body type, a warm olive tan.

Heads turn as he trails the hostess through the restaurant, cellphone pressed to his ear, eyes fixed on the hostess’s derriere.

Typical. I snort and force my gaze away, checking my phone again. Nothing.

Smart, sensible women know better than to even look in the direction of men like him. Unless you’re in for a fling, drama, or angst, it’s a waste of time. Men like him are conceited, self-centered, cocksure jerks who will still be juggling multiple women well into their sixties. As long as their face stays handsome, abs remain ripped, and their virility doesn’t wane, they will never settle down, convinced that there’s too much of them to give it all to just one person.

I should know. I have a bestie who’s the definition of a player. A man so promiscuously virile that just one sex wouldn’t do. So he has both. A playboy who scores for both sides? Whoo boy. Look away, girl. Look away.

I tap out another message to Alaric.

 

Serena: So? Did Mr. Perfect Match fall into a manhole and break his leg?

 

“Miss Bentley?”

I glance up from my phone and find the hostess standing there. With Mr. Playboy.

I raise a brow. “Yes?”

She flashes me a face-splitting, wide-eyed Oh My God! grin and winks. “I believe this is your date.”

I blink at the hostess. Then at Mr. Playboy. Then at the hostess again.

Oh, hell no. NO. You have got to be kidding me. Perfect match? Is this some kind of a joke? I’m going to murder Alaric. I swear it!

My face must display incredulous horror, because the hostess’s grin dies and she begins to stutter. “I-I’m sure he has an, um, explanation for being late. Please, have a seat, Mr. Sharpe. I’ll just, ah, let the waiter know the second party has arrived.” With that, she’s off before I can tell her there’s no need because I’m out of here.

An awkward silence left in her wake, Mr. Playboy scowls down at me while I stare up at him with a look that I hope expresses, Not a chance in hell, buddy.

He idly flips his phone over in his hand as he, with unconcealed irritation, points out, “You’re a redhead.”

“Well, at least you’re not color-blind.”

Vexation evident in the pinch of his brows and the downturn of his lips, he replies, “Sorry, you’re pretty and all, but I don’t do redheads. They’re stubborn, mouthy, and a downright pain in my ass. Michelle knows this. Why would she set me up with you? I asked for easy and fun, not trouble and psycho.”

“Perfect.” My smile is saccharine. “Because I don’t do playboys. Especially ones with—wait, who’s Michelle?”

He frowns. “Michelle? Our matchmaker? Plump Brit, about yay high?”  He lifts his hand to just below his pectorals to indicate ‘yay high.’

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know who that is.”  I shake my head. “I’m with Sparks, and there’s no Michelle there. Get the hostess. Wrong blind date, thank God.”

Moving to the railing overlooking the main floor, he catches the hostess’s attention and waves her up.

“I think there’s been a bit of a mix up,” he tells her when she arrives at our section. “We’re from different companies.”

“I, uh, I…” the hostess stutters, and I wouldn’t be surprise if it’s his face that’s got her so out of it. “We only have one booking for a blind date tonight, sir. As is custom with these services, reservations are made under the company’s names, and there’s a reservation for two under Sparks.”

Playboy twists his lips to the side. “Can you check if a reservation was made under M. Nolan.”

As the hostess nods and hurries off to check the books, Playboy leans his hip against the mosaic tiled column of the alcove, as if to avoid having to talk to me.

Where the heck is that damn waiter with my wine?

The intense silence is punctured by muffled ringing from my purse. I get out my phone and answer without preamble.  “I’m over it, Alaric. Find another match.”

“He fell into a manhole and broke his leg, Rena,” Alaric informs me in that deep, gruff voice of his. “Quite literally a block away from the restaurant.”

“Ha. Nice one,” I say. “That’s my lie. I invented it, remember? Tell him he can go drown himself in a bucket of bleach.”

“Rena?”

“What?”

“I’m serious. He’s at the hospital.”

No way. What?”

“I have photo evidence. I’ll forward it to you,” he promises. “Heading to the hospital to check on him now. Let’s hope he’s not superstitious or anything.”

“Uh, okay?”

“Sorry, baby girl. Shit happens. I’ll keep you posted. Talk later.”

“Oh, my God,” I whisper as I lower the phone from my ear. “I’m a witch.”

A derisive snort reminds me that I’m not alone. “All redheads are.”

I glance up, but he’s not even turned in my direction. Head down, fingers flying across his phone screen. “Evil, soul-sucking witches.”

With an annoyed curl to my lip, I’m about to tell him to go stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, when the hostess returns with a disappointed smile.

“You were right, Mr. Sharpe,” she says. “There was a reservation for two made under M. Nolan, but both parties should have been here an hour ago. We gave up the table.”

Playboy pinches the bridge of his nose. “I came late. On purpose. Because in my experience, the women are always late. And you’re telling me—”

“You’ve been stood up,” I finish for him.

He shoots me a glare.

I smile smugly.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Sharpe,” the hostess apologizes, though it’s not even her fault. “Would you like to sit and have a glass of wine, or…”

I roll my eyes at the open, suggestive look she gives him. After all, his real date didn’t show.

Blatant and unabashed, he rakes his gaze over her in return. I mean, she basically just gave him permission to eye-rape her. “What time do you get off?”

Like a sweets-loving toddler, she sways from side to side. “An hour from now.” 

“A glass of wine it is then.” He winks and bites his lip. Then, “Here.”

This gets my attention. “Excuse me?”

Without permission, he enters my alcove, taking the seat across from me. “What’s the big deal, Red Witch? It’s not as if your frog is gonna show up.”

The hostess flees.

“Ah, I see,” I say, “you want to sit here so you don’t look pathetic being stood up.”

“No,” he denies. “I’m sitting here so you don’t look pathetic being stood up.”

I bristle. “I’m not stood up. My date…he—”

“Fell into a manhole and broke his leg on the way here?”

Wha… How does he… “What?”

He shrugs. “A plausibly implausible excuse I would use to get out of a date.” 

Wow. Guess I’m not as original as I thought. But Alaric swears this date isn’t lying. Hmph. I don’t know.

Nevertheless… “You can’t sit here.”

As if he didn’t hear me, he reaches across the table and picks up my glass, then picks up the water pitcher and refills the cup. Lifting the glass to his lips, he downs the entire thing.

The nerve!

“Look,” he says, setting the glass down. “I’ve had a long, grueling day. I came here to get fed and laid, so I could get up tomorrow and start my ridiculously awesome, sex-filled life all over again. As it turns out, I got stood up, and apparently so did you.”

He pauses, as if expecting me to throw in a defense. When I don’t, he continues, “Fact is, I still need to get fed and laid. You’re not my type and I’m clearly not yours, so we should be able to fill our bellies in companionable silence, yes? Afterward, you’ll go home to your B.O.B, and I’ll go home with that tight little hostess over there. End of day. Tomorrow, a new tale. Care to point out the harm in that, Red Witch?”

I stare at him in disbelief. Is he for real? Who the hell does he think he is? See? This is why I avoid jerks like him.

I should just get up and leave, but I don’t. Because what I’ve belatedly realized is that this guy either doesn’t know who I am, or he’s so full of himself he just doesn’t care.

I can’t remember the last time anyone spoke to me this way. It’s refreshing. How twisted is that? That I find someone being a jerkface asshole to me refreshing? I really ought to have him kicked out—because I can—but I don’t.

What I do instead—surprisingly—is shrug. “Fine. Whatever.”

He pours himself more water and sips while scrolling through his phone, as if it wouldn’t have mattered whether I said yay or nay. He’s having dinner here and that’s that.

Fascinated, I can only stare at him.

As if sensing my eyes drilling into him, he flicks his gaze up from the screen without lifting his head. “Problem?”

The waiter returns before I can respond. Wine! Finally.

“Good to see you have arrived, sir,” greets the waiter as he places two wine glasses before us and proceeds to open the bottle with unnecessary flourish.

“Nope. Wrong guy,” Playboy corrects. “I’m just hungry.” Then, picking up the menu, he adds under his breath, “And horny.”

Jesus Savior. I glare across the table at him.

With wide, bewildered eyes, the waiter glances back and forth between us, but says nothing as he pours our wine.

Sighing, I tap the menu and tell the waiter, “I’ll have the Caesar Salad, sans dressing.”

Playboy peeps at me over the top of his menu with a hiked brow, before he shakes his head and shifts his gaze back to the menu. “Typical.”

“And you, sir?” the waiter asks. “Are you ready to order?

“Yes.” He sets the menu down. “I haven’t eaten in six hours, so I need protein and carbs. Lots of carbs.”

When the waiter just stands there looking confused, Playboy shakes his head and simplifies, “I’ll have a Chicken Alfredo. But bring some warm bread and butter in the meantime, please. I’m surprised there’s not a basket here already.”

“There was, sir. Miss Bentley requested it be taken back.”

Playboy eyes me. “Watching your weight? What, you a runway model or something?”

The waiter frowns disapprovingly at him before turning to leave.

This man is utterly provoking. “I have to be a supermodel to eat healthy?”

“Eat healthy at home,” he replies. “Not at a fancy restaurant.”

“Would you still want to sit here with me were I three-hundred pounds?”

“Most definitely,” he answers without pause. “I enjoy women of all shades, shapes, and sizes.”

“Except redheads.”

“Except redheads,” he affirms.

The waiter is back in a jiffy with a basket of bread and a saucer of butter, while I had to wait a decade on my wine. Guess who won’t be getting a tip?

Playboy immediately attacks the basket of bread. I laugh into my glass of wine as I watch him stuff a buttered slice into his mouth, humming in delight as though he hadn’t eaten in days.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

One eyebrow hikes up at me again. “Companionable silence, remember?”

“Hey, man, you just barged your way in here. Eating my bread and drinking my wine. I’m allowed to ask questions.”

He stares back at me, chewing contemplatively.

His zinc-colored eyes stare without apology, intense and confident.  “Khol. Spelled K-H-O-L.  Short for Kholton. Kholton Sharpe. Anything else?”

“Yeah.” I take a sip of my wine, watching him with as much intent as he’s watching me. “Why is your hair white?”

“’Cause I’m a rebel.”

I fight my lips from curving up. Can’t give this tool the satisfaction. “What do you do for a living?”

“Teach.”

I scoff. “Teach what? Sex Education?”

“Nope,” he replies without taking umbrage. “I teach Math, Accounts, and Finance, and sometimes Physics to a wide range of people, from high school students to stay-at-home moms.”

I almost choke on my wine. “You’re joking.”

He just looks at me. He’s serious.

“Forgive me,” I say, “but you don’t look like a teacher. And a high school teacher at that.”

There goes that hiking eyebrow again. “What do I look like?”

I reply, “A night-club going, ménage-loving, high-fashion model playboy?”  

He blinks at me. Then, “Can I finish eating my bread now?”

I nod, mostly because I’m somewhat bemused. What kind of math teacher looks like that

And, he doesn’t care who I am. And, he doesn’t like redheads. And, he picks up girls as easy as replacing a no-show blind date with a willing hostess. I’m piqued. I want to know more. I need to know who he is and how he came to be.

“You’re staring at me again,” he says without looking at me, slathering butter onto bread.

“Because you’re an enigma.”

“Not true,” he refutes around a mouthful. “What you see is what you get here.”

“And what you are is an extremely good-looking math/accounts/physics teacher who lives to get fed, laid, and a good night’s sleep?”

“Pretty much.”

“And that’s it?” I prod.

“Yep.” He shrugs. “Life’s not complicated. Humans are just dramatic. You live, and then you die. Sadly, some die and forget to live.”

Yes, I very much want to know him. Khol. Short for Kholton. Kholton Sharpe.

He’s such a twist from all the other men I’ve ever met. Including Alaric. He’s as self-assured, arrogant, and confident as Alaric, but there’s something different here.

It’s one thing to be a playboy but quite another to be a smart playboy. Anyone with the right qualifications can become a teacher, but it takes a special kind of person to choose to stand in front of fickle, attitudinal high school students and teach. To choose to sit down and teach anyone, for that matter. One would need to possess great patience, deep discernment, and sincere understanding for such a job. One would first need to care

If he really is who he says he is, then there’s more to his story. A whole lot more.

“You’re still staring,” he grumbles, scrolling through his phone now.

“Don’t you want to know anything about me?” I ask

“Nope.”

“Not even my name?”

“Red Witch is enough.”

“But my name isn’t Red Witch.”

“Don’t care.”

I should find his casual dismissal of me offensive, but I don’t. Again, I find it refreshing. So much so I can’t help smiling. Might as well enjoy it while it lasts, because I won’t ever see him again after tonight.

“Why do you hate redheads so much?”

At this, he looks up from his phone and studies me through those daring zinc-gray eyes, tracing the curve of my face with what resembles appreciation. Then, slowly, that look of stifled appreciation transmutes to something akin to resentment. “’Cause they’re my weakness.”

Whoa. I did not see that one coming. So blunt and matter-of-fact. Not many people would openly admit to something like that. Maybe he really is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy.

“Oh, I get it,” I say, “you got your heart broken by a redhead and now we all suffer.”

“Penny Walters.” He sets his phone face-down and narrows his gaze at me. “Third grade. Prettiest girl in class. Flaming red hair and big green eyes. Peppery and precocious. I crushed hard on her. Stole twenty-dollar bills from my grandmother’s purse every chance I got and gave them to her.”

He shakes his head, as if disappointed in his younger self. “I picked fresh flowers for her. I got her Bon Bon Lollies. And once, I even gave her my homework because she didn’t do hers and I took a beating from my dad. Then, I caught her in the Boys’ bathroom lifting her skirt up for red-faced Benny the Bully.”

Mouth agape, I stare at him. “Are you serious? You hate all redheads because in third grade some redhead named Penny took all your granny’s twenty-dollar bills and then showed the goods to someone else?”

“Disloyal witch,” he mumbles under his breath, taking a sip of his wine.

I can’t help it. I guffaw. Because, what the hell?  “You’re mental.”

He scowls at me. “Thanks for the sympathy. Wish I could get those twenty-dollar bills back. That little witch got off with about eighteen-hundred bucks. I could use that right now.”

“Well, at least you don’t have to work for it anymore,” I say with an amused smirk. “Look how far you’ve come. From working hard with stolen twenty-dollar bills and Bon Bon Lollies, to walking into a restaurant, have all the female eyes follow you, and effortlessly securing a lay less than a minute after you’ve discovered another lay stood you up.”

“I bet she was a redhead,” he grouses.

“The woman who stood you up?”

“Gotta be a redhead,” he says.

I laugh again.

He looks at me.

I look back at him.

He smiles.

Our food arrives.

 

 

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