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The Break-Up Bet by Cat Carmine (1)

One

Flour, sugar, cocoa, butter, parmesan cheese…

I tap my lip as I stare down at the array of ingredients in front of me. Something looks … wrong. The faux marble laminate countertop is pristine, just how I like it when I’m setting up to bake something. The oven is already preheating. Yet something doesn’t seem quite right.

Right. The parmesan. Not usually a common ingredient when making brownies. I mentally smack myself. I’d opened the fridge to grab eggs, but clearly I let my distraction get the better of me.

I bite my tongue and shove the cheese back into the fridge. It’s crowded in there, filled with grass-fed butter and free-run eggs and all the fresh berries the local Korean market had in stock, but soon it’ll probably be filled with beer and leftover pizza and whatever else twenty-eight-year-old dude-bros like to eat. I sigh and grab four eggs and set them on the counter, snuggled up next to the mixing bowl where they won’t roll away. Then I take a deep breath to try to draw my focus back to the task at hand. These brownies are going to be the only thing in my world right now — I’m not going to think about dude-bros. Or anything else, for that matter.

Besides, when it comes to this new living arrangement, the contents of the fridge are the least of my concerns.

The sound of a heavy thud comes from the living room, and I wince. The source of my current distraction is back. But I don’t let myself go out there to investigate, and instead focus on creaming my butter and sugar and taking liberal tastes of the batter as I go. Yes, even with the raw eggs. I’m wild like that. I work as slowly and deliberately as possible. Baking is my happy place, the thing that keeps me grounded and sane. And right at this moment, I need a dose of sanity.

And chocolate. I definitely need chocolate, too.

I mix in the cocoa, the flour, a liberal sprinkle of sea salt. It’s all coming together perfectly, so creamy and sweet. When you get brownies right, the batter practically glistens, and not to brag but this bowl is a shining example. That’s what I love about baking. It isn’t foolproof, but if you follow the instructions, it always comes together the way it’s supposed to.

If only everything in life was that simple.

And if only someone had bothered to tell my ex-boyfriend Lou that.

I go back to creaming the batter, but now there’s a viciousness to the way I attack the tiny lumps of flour. For three years, I’d put in the ingredients for a happy relationship with Lou Myers — time, love, attention, affection. I thought it was only a matter of time before he, you know, put a ring on it. After all, that’s how things are supposed to come together, right? Relationships, like baking, are just a matter of following the recipe. At the end, if you’ve done everything right, you should get a perfect pan of brownies. Shouldn’t you?

Instead, three weeks ago, Lou had unceremoniously announced that he ‘wasn’t feeling it anymore,’ and that he thought we should break up.

Break up! After three years. And for no damn good reason, as far as I could see. Not feeling it. Pffft. What does that even mean? I’d been wracking my brain every day since then. Where did we go wrong? Did I forget an ingredient somewhere? Over-mixed the batter? Salted when I should have sugared?

Or maybe, I think bitterly as I attack another lump of flour, our metaphorical oven just wasn’t hot enough.

All I know is I haven’t slept a night since it happened. I lie awake, staring at the ceiling, my mind turning the recipe of our relationship over and over, trying to find the mistake. Because there has to be one. There has to be. Things don’t just go so badly wrong for no reason.

Another thud comes from the living room. I jolt at the sudden noise and drop an egg onto the floor.

“Dammit.” It splatters over the cheap checkered linoleum. Yellow oozes through cracked white.

“I think that’s the last of it.” The voice from the living room is low and gruff and enough to make all my limbs tingle uncomfortably.

I take a deep breath. I suppose I have to talk to him eventually. After all, he’s going to be living here.

I emerge from the kitchen and come face to face with Connor Pratt.

Or, more specifically, with Connor Pratt’s abs.

There go my limbs, tingling again. Connor has his shirt pulled up, using the hem to wipe the sweat from his face. His perfectly sculpted abs glisten like he’s in a men’s cologne ad. It’s really quite ridiculous. I’d roll my eyes, if I could manage to tear them away from his midriff.

“I think that’s it,” he says again, when he finally drops his shirt back into place and sees me standing there.

With the offending muscles safely out of view, I’m free to roll my eyes as desired. “You know, you could have put them right in your room. Instead of leaving them out here in the living room.”

“I wanted to get them up here as fast as I could,” he explained. “The truck’s double parked.”

“Well, I’m just saying.”

He has this stupid half grin on his face, and it’s so ... so ... so Connor. He always had such an attitude, even back when he was a cocky sixteen-year-old and I was the dumb little kid with a crush on her older brother’s best friend. Of course, that was back before I understood what guys like him were really like. Now I know that those cocky grins come with equally cocky attitudes, and a sense of entitlement that makes my skin crawl. No, I know guys like Connor. That’s why I ended up with a sweet guy like Lou, instead.

Of course, look where that got me. Hiding out in my own kitchen, making salted caramel heartbreak brownies, where the salt came straight from my own tears.

Okay, not really. But it might as well have.

I fold my arms and stare down Connor. I’m determined not to let that grin have any effect on me whatsoever. Not like it used to. “Well, just get them out of the way soon. I don’t want to be tripping over them all month.”

“Aye aye, Captain.” He gives me a fake salute.

Once again, I roll my eyes. “I have to get back to the kitchen. I dropped an egg.”

Connor raises one eyebrow. “Is that a euphemism?”

Even my hair blushes. “No. I literally dropped an egg. On the floor. And now I’m going to go clean it up.”

I scurry into the kitchen before I can potentially embarrass myself further. But as I clean up the broken egg and then get the brownies ready to go into the oven, I catch myself sneaking peeks into the living room. Connor had gone out to move the truck, but now he’s back, and he’s beginning to lug all the boxes of his things from the living room into his new bedroom.

Watching him work is almost as satisfying as creaming butter and sugar together. His biceps bulge, his neck strains, and a sheen of sweat appears on his forehead. Every time he bends, his thighs flex, and as he lifts, those broad shoulders harden, testing the limits of the thin fabric of his t-shirt.

I should go out there and offer to help him. It would be the nice thing to do.

Then again, he’d probably just decline my offer anyway, I quickly reason. And the view is so much better from back here.

I get so distracted by The Connor Pratt Show that I forget all about the brownies. When a whiff of scorched chocolate catches my attention, I realize they’ve been in the oven far too long.

“Shit!” I yank the door open and wave away the smoke. The brownies are dark and hard-looking, but at least they aren’t on fire. I grab a dish towel and pull the pan out. A little burnt, but I need chocolate so badly right now that I decide to go ahead and call them edible.

I set the pan on top of the oven to cool, and frown. Good brownies should have a sheen to them, a beautiful crackle texture, like a perfectly-worn leather purse. These look more like a beat-up suitcase you might find at the thrift store. Not exactly my best work. But at least I know where I went wrong. The recipe didn’t fail me — it was just a simple case of human error. Or, more accurately, a simple case of Connor.

I notice that it’s gone quiet in the living room. I take off my apron, ball it up on the counter, and flick my hair once or twice to give it some body. Why? Not to impress Connor, if that’s what you’re thinking. That’s just silly. But as I emerge into the living room, I find myself wishing for a slick of lipgloss, a spritz of perfume that isn’t Eau du Burnt Brownies.

Instead, the living room is empty. All the boxes, which had towered there earlier, are gone. I find Connor — and all his stuff — in his new bedroom.

“That was fast.” I hover at the entrance.

“Well, someone said they didn’t want all my stuff out in the living room forever.” He reaches over and rips open one of the boxes, tearing through the packing tape like it’s nothing more than gift wrap.

I watch him for a minute. The room is pale yellow, with fluttery ivory curtains over the old weather-beaten windows. I’d lived in this apartment for a couple of years now and had a string of roommates over that time. The room had most recently belonged to my friend Blake, but she moved out after getting married and having a baby. Now she lives in a swanky house in Connecticut, and I was left with custody of our Brooklyn walk-up.

When she left, I hoped it would be the push Lou and I needed to take the next step forward — that maybe he’d finally agree to move in together. I pictured finally getting to give up this cruddy apartment, move in with Lou into his brand new condo down in the financial district. I hinted at it more than once, and he seemed to be warming up to the idea.

Instead, he dumped me. Talk about a bait and switch.

So I renewed my lease on this crappy place and raced to find a new roommate for the extra room. It was actually my brother who saved the day. Kyle called me up at the eleventh hour, with news that his lifelong best friend Connor had left his job out in California and was moving back to New York City. He needed a place to stay until he got back on his feet. Was I still looking for a roommate?

I didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity. Inviting Connor Pratt back into my life seemed like an idea that was all kinds of bad. But I’ve had so many random — read: terrible — roommates in this city that taking on another stranger just felt too emotionally exhausting to even contemplate. Connor might have been an arrogant asshole, but at least he was a known entity. Also, to the best of my knowledge, he didn’t own any pet snakes or have aspirations of becoming a professional clog dancer. Unlike some of my former roommates.

Connor pulls something out of the box and holds it up. It’s a plastic Yoda, about ten inches tall. I can’t help but laugh.

“I can’t believe you still have that.” I remembered Connor lugging it around with him when we were kids.

“It was a gift from my dad. My twelfth birthday. I’ll never get rid of it. What do you think? Want it on display out in the living room?”

I pretend to consider. “No, you know, I think it would look much better in here.”

“Suit yourself.” He sets it down on the bookshelf. The little face seems to be laughing at me.

Connor rips open another one of the cardboard boxes. He’s moving through them at a lightning pace. In this one, I spy a stack of books. Actually, the whole box appears to be filled with books. I try to peek at the titles, but Connor looks up again.

“It smells good in here. Is that you?”

“Me?” Color creeps up the back of my neck. Why am I sweating so much?

“Yeah, did you bake something? Smells like chocolate.”

“Oh. right. I made brownies. They’re a little burnt, but...”

“I hope you’re planning to share.”

There’s that stupid grin again. And, yup, there’s the corresponding flutter in my chest. This is going to be a long few months. “Yes, you can have some. Whatever.”

“Great.” He’s still grinning. Does he have a disorder or something? Geez.

“Well ... I’ll leave you to your unpacking. Or whatever.”

“Okay. So, your room is just right next door, huh?”

“Yes.” There’s a defensive tone in my voice. I don’t know where it comes from, or why, but if Connor senses it, he chooses to ignore it.

“That should be fun.” His grin spreads into a full-blown smirk.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

This time, he notices. He throws his hands up in the air with a laugh. “Relax, Sweet. I’m just making a joke.”

“Ha.” I deadpan.

“See? There you go. That’s how a person normally responds to jokes.”

“Right.” I stand there for another minute, until it becomes uncomfortable. “Well, I’m going to go and ... do something. Bye.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Bye.”

Somehow, the single word manages to sound arrogant and sarcastic and sexy all at once. I have no intention of letting him get the better of me any longer, so I give him a perfunctory nod.

It’s always been like this with Connor. When I was young, I had this stupid crush on him, and even though he practically lived at our house, every time I saw him, I’d turn into a flustered, flakey loser. That was half the reason I’d started baking so long ago — he and my brother barely spent any time in the kitchen, so it was a safe place to get away from him.

But that doesn’t mean things have to be like that now, I reason with myself. After all, we’re both grown-ups. The crush is long gone, and I doubt Connor even knew about it to begin with. So there’s no reason I can’t be civil with him. Plus, for better or worse, Connor lives here too now, and he’s new to the city. I don’t even know if he knows anyone here other than me and Kyle.

So the least I can do is be a little more welcoming.

I backtrack towards his room and peek my head around the door. I mean to just make some casual comment, to tell him I’m looking forward to having him here or some other benign platitude. Instead, I find him stripping off his t-shirt. All reasonable thoughts — and words — go flying out of my mind. He peels the fabric from his frame in excruciating slow-motion, then balls it up as he notices me hovering again.

“Hi. Welcome. Hi,” I stammer. It’s literally the only thing I can manage, other than licking my lips wildly, like a cartoon puppy.

My eyes are locked on his abs. They barely even look human, but like something an anatomy student might study. The perfect human form. He even has a hint of a tan, I guess because he’s been living in California, where they do things like, oh, go to the beach occasionally.

“What was that?” he asks as he wipes his face with his t-shirt, which is still in his hands instead of on his body where it rightfully belongs.

“I mean,” I lick my lips again, not knowing anymore what I came in here for, or even what my name is or how words work. “The brownies are in the kitchen. If you want some later. Help yourself.”

“Thanks, Sweet. Don’t mind if I do.”

This time, when I scamper down the hallway, I don’t look back. I know that if I do, I’ll only increase my odds of saying something moronic or embarrassing. And I’m already moronically-inclined as it is — I don’t need anything extra pushing me in that direction.

When I get to my bedroom, I lock myself inside. For a minute, I just lean against the back of the door, waiting for my breathing to return to normal. I can’t believe I’m going to be living with this guy for the foreseeable future. What was I thinking when I agreed to this arrangement?

All I can say now is ... this is definitely going to be very interesting.