Well-trained in the art of reading the subtle cues of body language, FBI Special Agent Vaughn Roberts was quite certain this date was going down in flames.
On the upside, it wasn’t his date that was crashing and burning. Rather, the unfortunate rendezvous was between the attractive auburn-haired woman who’d caught his eye when she’d walked into the coffee shop twenty minutes ago, and some dude in a striped banker shirt who apparently was vying for the Guinness record for World’s Longest Story Ever.
The woman nodded along with the story, trying to appear interested. She blinked, stifled back a yawn, and then quickly grabbed her coffee and took a sip to cover.
Vaughn smiled. He guessed that this was either a blind date or an online match, given the way the woman had looked around the shop when she first arrived, paused, and then had walked over to Striped Banker Shirt’s table with a tentative smile. He also guessed, given the way things were going, that this would be the only date these two would ever have. But he gave the woman props for being polite while the guy continued to ramble on.
One of the most important first-date rules, Vaughn knew, was to ask questions. Women liked men who were curious about them—and, just as important, they liked men who paid attention to their answers. As a man who was trained to ask questions and pay careful attention to answers, he had something of an edge in this.
Striped Banker Shirt, on the other hand, obviously missed the memo.
Going back to his own business, Vaughn pulled out his cell phone and checked his email. He had ten minutes to kill before meeting his younger brother, Simon, and Simon’s new girlfriend at a restaurant around the corner for dinner—a dinner he was very curious about.
This was his first time meeting Isabelle since his brother had begun dating her three months earlier. But Simon had mentioned her on more than one occasion, and that spoke volumes. Like Vaughn, Simon avoided talking too much about any one particular woman around his family. Doing so inherently invited numerous questions from their very traditionally minded, very Catholic mother, who’d been hoping for one of her sons to settle down for some time now. Having written Vaughn off as a lost cause—the mere idea of a thirty-four year-old committed bachelor being thoroughly “un-Irish”—she’d pinned all her hopes on Simon.
But now here they were, the first time Simon had specifically asked Vaughn to meet someone he was dating. Not unexpectedly, Vaughn was under strict instructions to call his mother with a full report as soon as dinner was over.
A masculine laugh cut across the coffee shop, interrupting Vaughn’s thoughts. He glanced up from his phone, thinking perhaps the date he’d been observing had turned for the better.
Striped Banker Shirt was still rambling away, now laughing at his own stories, because—obviously—not only was he a good-looking guy in an expensive suit with a knack for scintillating conversation, but he was just so funny, too!
Women liked confident men, no doubt. But as a guy who’d never had any problems meeting women—quite the contrary, actually—Vaughn also knew that a woman wanted a guy who expressed interest in getting to know her specifically. And Striped Banker Shirt had failed woefully on that score.
Vaughn saw the woman make a deliberate gesture of checking her watch. Curious, he watched to see what would happen next. The next time Striped Banker Shirt came up for air, she quickly jumped into the conversation with a smile. The smile temporarily silenced Striped Banker Shirt, as well it should.
She had a gorgeous smile.
It was about this time that Vaughn really began paying attention to her, instead of the awkward but interesting-to-watch-and-pass-the-time circumstances of their date. Her auburn hair fell past her shoulders in a stylish, layered cut. In fact, everything about her looked stylish and put-together, from her ivory ruffled blouse to her sleek gray pencil skirt to the light summer scarf around her neck. He guessed her to be in her early thirties, and in some kind of professional occupation given her well-tailored clothes and classic heels.
In other words, she was smart, attractive, and seemingly single.
He could work with this.
After a few moments, Striped Banker Shirt stood up from the table, gesturing emphatically as if to say, No problem, I have somewhere to be, too. And obviously he had places to go, because not only was he good-looking and funny with a fancy job, but he was important, too!
Now Auburn had a decision to make. She could take the easy way out—Email me, let’s do this again, and then never write the guy back—or she could go for the more awkward, but honest, This was nice, but I’m just not feeling a connection between us.
Striped Banker Shirt pointed to his phone. How about I call you sometime? Then he waited to see if he was in.
Vaughn waited along with him.
The woman shook her head regretfully.
Vaughn’s interest shot up five-fold. As a man who valued honesty in his own relationships, he liked this woman’s style. It took balls to go with the truth in these circumstances.
Striped Banker Shirt clearly had not expected the rejection, and for that, Vaughn was sympathetic. He watched as the guy asked the woman a question, ironically choosing this moment to finally give her an opportunity to speak. She appeared to answer graciously, saying something that made him nod and, with a bit of a bewildered expression, head for the door.
As soon as he left, she let out a sigh of relief and took her cell phone out of her purse.
Vaughn watched as she crossed one long leg over the other, getting comfortable in her chair.
It would be a shame to let a woman like that end her Friday night on such a sour note.
* * *
Well, that had been unfortunate.
Sidney Sinclair texted her best friend, Trish, who’d helped create her dating profile last Saturday night over a bottle of pinot noir. At the time, the idea of online dating had struck her as fun and exciting—and maybe it would still prove to be that—but thus far, she was batting 0 and 1.
Bachelor Number One is a no-go, she texted Trish. He talked too much.
Within seconds, Trish texted back. Isn’t talking a good thing on a first date?
Of course, Trish was trying to put a positive spin on things. As the happily-married-with-child best friend of a single, thirty-three year-old woman, it was part of the job description.
As in, Donkey from Shrek too much, Sidney typed back.
Ouch. That’s not good.
No kidding. William, aka Bachelor Number One, had seemed to have a lot of potential. As a trader, he was in the investment business. Right there, they’d had some common ground, something they—meaning her included—could talk about. And he’d said he liked to travel, go to the movies, and enjoyed trying new restaurants in the city. All of which fell solidly in the “plus” column.
What he hadn’t mentioned in his profile was that he liked to talk about these things in mind-numbing detail.
Not that Sidney couldn’t appreciate that people sometimes got nervous on first dates, and might possibly talk a lot to compensate for that. But William hadn’t seemed nervous so much as full of himself—and that definitely merited a big-old pass in her book.
One of the things Sidney had decided, now that she was back in Chicago after eight years in New York, was that she needed to have a plan when it came to dating. It had been six months since she’d broken her engagement with her ex-fiancé—plenty of time to mourn the loss of that relationship.
Moving back to Chicago, her hometown, was her chance to get a fresh start. And to make the most of the opportunity, Sidney had decided to draw on the skills she’d cultivated in her professional life. As a director at one of the most successful private equity firms in the country, she had great instincts when it came to determining whether a company was a good or bad investment. Those instincts, in fact, were the reason her new firm had approached her three months ago, at the Manhattan-based investment bank where she’d previously worked, and asked her to manage a four-billion-dollar fund they’d nearly finished raising.
Now, she simply needed to apply those same instincts to her personal life. One had to be somewhat business-like in order to survive the thirty-something dating scene; to be successful she needed to be open to new prospects, but also decisive and quick to move on when a candidate looked to be a less-than-stellar investment.
Maybe some would say her approach to dating was too pragmatic, perhaps even somewhat aloof. Maybe some people would say that she should follow her heart instead of her head when it came to falling in love.
She used to be one of those people.
“At least the coffee’s good here.”
The rich masculine voice had a hint of a rough grit to it. Sidney looked up from her cell phone and—
It was him. The hot guy she’d noticed when she’d first walked into the coffee shop. He was tall, and somehow managed to look ruggedly sexy despite the rather conservative dark gray suit and blue tie he wore. Maybe it was the short cut of his thick, brown hair. Or his keen hazel eyes. Or his strong, chiseled jaw with that just-perfect amount of five o’clock shadow.
Too bad she had no clue what he was talking about.
“The coffee?” she asked. “As opposed to…?”
“The conversation,” he said. “Your date looked like it could’ve gone better.”
“You noticed that, did you?” She wasn’t sure how she felt about the fact that a perfect stranger had been paying such close attention to her date.
“Yes. But only because I’m trained to notice things.” He flashed her a smile. “It’s not like I’m some creepy perv or something.”
“Probably, that’s exactly what a creepy perv would say.”
“True.” There was a teasing gleam in his eyes. “I could show you my badge, if that’ll make you feel better.”
Sidney looked him over more closely. Presumably, this reference to a “badge” meant he was in some kind of law enforcement. She could see that—he had the bold air of someone accustomed to being in a position of authority. “Why do I get the feeling I’m not the first strange woman you’ve offered to show your badge to?”
“Trust me, in my line of work a lot of strange women have seen my badge. Strange men, too.” With that, he grabbed the chair on the opposite end of the table and sat down.
Um. . . hello? Sidney gestured to the chair he’d just helped himself to. “What are you doing?”
He looked at her as if this was obvious. “Starting a conversation.”
“But I don’t even know you.”
“That’s why I’m starting a conversation. Let’s begin with the basics. Like your name.”
Ah, right. Sidney knew exactly what was happening here. This guy had seen her on her failed date, had obviously deduced that she was single, and now thought she was easy pickings.
“I’m not giving you my name,” she said.
“All right, then. ‘Ms. Doe,’ it is,” he said, undeterred. “Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself, Ms. Doe?”
She leveled him with her best “Scram, buddy” gaze, perfected after eight years of living in New York. “So we’re going with the good-cop pick up routine now? How original.”
His tone turned wicked. “I can easily switch to the bad-cop routine, if you like.”
Sidney fought back a blush at the innuendo. “I’m betting those kinds of comments normally work really well for you, don’t they?”
“The question is, are they working for you?”
“Not at all.”
“Damn. Guess I’d better switch tactics, then.”
“And I’d love to stick around for that. Really.” Sidney checked her watch. “But, unfortunately, I have a dinner I need to get to.”
He surprised her then.
His expression turned more earnest. “Okay, look. Maybe I’m coming on a little strong here. Normally, I would’ve thought up some witty opening line, followed by this whole cute pickup routine in which I charm and impress you—yes, I see the skeptical look there, but you’ll have to trust me on this: it’s quality stuff. But like you, I have somewhere I need to be. So I’m under the gun.
“The simple truth is, you’ve had me intrigued from the moment you walked into this coffee shop. And I’d like to know more. You don’t have to give me your number or even your name. Just meet me here tomorrow, same time. I’ll buy you a cup of coffee, we’ll talk, and then you can decide whether I really am the asshole you’re thinking I might be.” A smile curled at the edges of his mouth. “I might actually surprise you on that front.”
Confident, flirty, and drop-dead gorgeous. It was a lethal combination that Sidney had no doubt typically played very well for this guy. She could easily say Why not?, meet him again tomorrow, and if he was as cocky as she thought he might be, that would be the end of that. She’d get a free cup of coffee out of it and the cheap thrill of having a guy who looked like him chasing after her.
The problem was, she knew this guy. She’d dated this guy. Hell, she’d been engaged to this guy. Manhattan was crawling with guys just like him: confident, good-looking, and slick as all get-out. And she was plenty familiar with the way things would turn out, because she’d once gone down this exact road with Brody: this guy wouldn’t actually be an asshole tomorrow, instead he would be smooth and smart and witty, and coffee would turn into drinks and drinks into dinner, and she would have flutters of excitement in her stomach throughout every moment of it. Blah, blah, blah.
She was so over this guy.
Because, in truth, any woman who allowed herself to be swept up in the romantic fantasy of dating this kind of guy would be ignoring one crucial fact.
This guy was a bad investment.
And she knew that better than anyone.
Still, the logical part of her realized that the hazel-eyed, dark scruff iteration of This Guy who sat across from her right then hadn’t actually done anything wrong to her. Because of that, she smiled in an effort to be polite. “That’s nice of you to ask. But unfortunately, I’m going to have to say no.”
“Great.” He nodded, as if expecting this very answer. Then his brow furrowed, and he cocked his head. “Wait—what?”
Sidney bit her lip to hold back a laugh. Ah . . . when she told this story later to Trish, the perplexed look on this guy’s face would be the highlight.
“I’m afraid I have to pass on meeting you tomorrow,” she explained.
His confused expression turned to one of understanding. “Oh, sure. Because you have other plans, right?”
She shook her head. “Not really. It’s more just a flat-out no.”
“Huh.” He folded his arms over his chest, taking a moment to think that over. “I have to say, I was expecting a different answer.”
Yes, she got that.
“Can I ask why?” he said.
“I just don’t think you’re my type,” she said, for simplicity’s sake.
“Interesting. You were able to determine ‘my type’ in the all of five minutes we’ve been talking?”
Now he was pushing her buttons a bit. “Yes.”
“That’s impressive. See, it’s my job to size people up. So I’m intrigued to hear if you’re as good as you obviously think you are.”
Sidney threw him a look. “Honey, you know exactly what your type is. And so does every single woman in her thirties.”
“Huh.” He leaned back in his chair and beckoned with this hand. “Now I really need to hear this.”
Logically, Sidney knew this was not the type of conversation one should have with a perfect stranger in a coffee shop. First of all, there was no point. Second, she had places to be, and allegedly so did he.
But his eyes dared her.
Despite her better judgment, she felt a spike of adrenaline course through her, a rush to rise to his challenge. Back when she’d first starting working as an investment banker in Manhattan, she’d known plenty of men who’d assumed they could intimidate her with tactics just like these.
They’d assumed wrong.
So she, too, sat back in her chair and got comfortable. She’d tried to be as diplomatic as possible in her rejection, but hey—if this guy insisted on answers, then answers he would get.
“All right.” Her eyes raked over him in assessment. “You’re thirty-four or thirty-five, gainfully employed, never been married. You think maybe you’ll settle down one day, perhaps when you’re forty, but for now you work hard at your job, so you want to play hard, too. You tend to skew more toward dating women in their mid-twenties, because women in their early twenties seem just a little too young and women in their thirties frustrate you with the way they all want to talk about marriage and kids by the third date. You’ll go out with a girl a few times, you’ll have a lot of fun together, and then when she starts pushing for something more serious, you’ll move on to someone else, wondering why it is that women can’t be content to just date without needing a commitment. And why would you want to commit to one person right now? For men as attractive as you, this city is one big candy store, filled with so many shiny treats you couldn’t possibly chose just one. So instead, you run around with your obviously healthy ego, sampling as many of the goods as you can get your hands on—simply because you can.”
When finished, Sidney took a deep breath and felt strangely . . . good. For the last six months, she’d been so determined to move forward after her breakup with Brody, and to keep a stiff upper lip around her friends, family, and work colleagues, that she’d barely vented at all to anyone. So it felt great to finally express her frustration.
To this guy, apparently.
Better him than anyone else, she figured. It wasn’t as though she was ever going to see him again.
He rested his arms on the table. “Well. On behalf of the male population, let me be the first to apologize for whatever he did.”
Sidney’s eyes narrowed. He was being sarcastic—fair enough, given what she’d just said to him. But that hit a little too close to home. “We’re done here, right?”
“I’d say so.” He got up from his chair. “Enjoy your coffee, Ms. Doe.” He walked out of the café without further word.
Sidney took a deep breath, shaking it off. She was meeting her sister, Isabelle, and her sister’s boyfriend in a couple minutes and didn’t want to show up for dinner in a crummy mood.
She noticed that the man at the table next to her, in his sixties, was watching her. Clearly, he’d caught the show.
“Well, he asked for my opinion,” she said defensively.
“I’m just wondering what you’re going to do to the next guy who walks in,” the older man said. “They’re gonna start taking them out of here in body bags.”
Probably, it was high time she left this coffee shop.