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Bree Kingston had been in Manhattan for five months and twelve days. This was her third visit to the St. Mark's Church basement kitchen, where she and sixteen women she barely knew were exchanging ten days' worth of frozen lunches. She'd gotten invited by Lucy Prince, whom Bree had known for four days. Lucy wasn't part of the exchange. Not anymore. She'd moved to Buffalo with her fiance, thereby freeing up the fold-out ottoman bed that Bree slept on in the one-bedroom apartment she shared with three other girls. Bree's rent was a steal at seven hundred per month. The stove at the apartment had been nonfunctioning for as long as anyone there could remember.
Technically, this was her sixth visit to the kitchen.
She had gotten permission to come to the communal church basement the evenings before the exchanges to prepare her lunches. Sixteen portions of veggie lasa-gna and medium-heat chili this week packed in small freezer-to-microwave containers, all ready to be handed out during the semimonthly trade.
Although it had sounded odd when she'd first heard about the group, Bree suffered from both of the two major maladies that came with living the Manhattan dream: no decent single men to date and no money.
She'd anticipated both. Since she'd spent most of her twenty-five years planning her escape to The Big Apple, she'd read every article, blog and book about the subject, saved her money like Scrooge as she'd worked her way through college, and even had a decent savings account set aside for emergencies. Bree was in this for the long haul.
Finding the lunch exchange had been a brilliant stroke of luck. Fourteen of the sixteen were also single, worked in the East Village and all of them knew where to find the best happy hours, the cheapest dry cleaning, cell service that actually worked and where not to go on a date, assuming one ever had a date.
Even better, she'd actually made her first real New York friends.
"Attention ladies!" Shannon Fitzgerald, a natural redhead wearing a fantastic knockoff dress Bree had noticed first thing, had needed to shout to get everyone to listen. All of them were standing around a rectangle of tables, their lunches in front of them in neat little stacks. Everyone had brought their own cooler bag with ice packs on the bottom. In a moment, they'd move from pile to pile, an elegant assembly line of working women, all of them under thirtyish, all of them wearing something dark on this December day. All of them except Bree. She had chosen a yellow-and-black plaid skirt and jacket, emphasis on the yellow, handmade from her own copycat pattern. Which would have looked very nice on Shannon, now that Bree thought about it.
"Hush," Shannon said, and in a moment, the room fell silent. "Thank you. I have had an idea," she said.
It wasn't just a sentence. Not the way it was said. No, all the words were IN CAPS and bold, like a headline. The IDEA was going to be good. Exciting. Way more than just a new frozen lunch recipe.
"For those of you who are new" Shannon nodded toward Bree "my family owns a printing press. Fitzgerald & Sons on 10th Avenue and North 50th."
Bree had seen the place. It was huge.
"We do trading cards. Mostly sports, but now everybody and their uncle wants them. Artists use them as calling cards, Realtors do the same. They've got them for Twilight, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and we just finished a ginormous order of official Hip-Hop trading cards."
Shannon paused, looking around the room. Then she smiled. "No one, however, is using trading cards the way they should be usedto trade men.''''
Bree blinked, shot a look at her closest friend, Rebecca Thorpe, only to find Rebecca staring back. They raised eyebrows at each other and Bree was grateful all over again that she and Rebecca had clicked at that very first lunch exchange, despite their obvious differences. Bree was from a little town in Ohio and had a huge middle-class family. Rebecca was an attorney, the only child of a snooty New York family and she ran a charity foundation, one of the biggest in the world. Still, within five minutes of meeting, they'd made plans, exchanged digits and by that night they'd been friends on Facebook and LinkedIn and had already talked on the phone for over an hour.
"Intriguing," someone said, and Bree snapped back to the IDEA and the drama.
Someone else said, "Go on."
Shannon obliged. "Three weeks ago, I went out on a fix up. My cousin knew this guy who worked with this other guy, and you know the drill. He was great. Really. We met at MonteroneI know, risotto to die foranyway, he was good-looking, his job was legit, he'd been with someone, but they'd broken up months ago. It was a really nice blind date, one of the best I've been on in ages. But it wasn't there." The redhead sighed. "Zero chemistry. I knew it, he knew it. However," she said, only it was HOWEVER, "I knew, straightaway, that he and Janice would hit it off like gangbusters."
Every eye turned to Janice. Bree had met her, of course, but she was one of the few Bree hadn't had drinks with. She was a cutie, too. Tall, brunette, great touch with makeup.
Janice grinned. "We've been out three times, and he's fantastic. I can't even believe it." Janice put her hands on the table in front of her and leaned over her frozen chicken enchiladas. "I'm going to meet his mother on Friday."
The whole room said, "Ohhh," in the same key.
"I know," Janice said, standing up again. Back straight, face glowing. As if she'd won not just the spelling bee but aced the math final, as well.
Shannon spoke. "We've all got them, you know. Men who are nice and cute and have steady jobs. Who aren't gay or taken or married and not telling. Combine that with my family's printing press and what you get is "
This was like a Broadway show, Bree thought. Or the Home Shopping Network. She held her breath, waiting for the reveal, the IDEA in all its glory.
Shannon raised her hands. Holding in each one, a card. A beautiful, glossy card. A trading card fit for a Heisman trophy winner, for a Hall of Famer. "On the front," she said, "the picture. Of course." Then she flipped her hands around. "On the back are the important details. The stats that matter."
"Like.. " Bree said, surprised she'd spoken aloud.
"First and foremost," Shannon said, "marry, date or one-night stand."
The women nodded. Hugely important. How much pain in life could be eliminated by knowing who was whom. Each had their place. Bree would never be interested in a marry. Probably not a date, although that would depend. But a one-night stand? God, yes. Someone prescreened? It would be perfection. A Manhattan girl's idea of heaven.
"His favorite restaurant," Shannon added, and again, there was a collective "Uh-huh"
"Because while I'm a gal who likes the pub down the street, some of you might prefer a little Nobu action. Then there's his passion."
Silence followed this statement, but Shannon milked it, in no rush to explain, though even she had her limits. "You know as well as I do that all of them want to talk about themselves, and usually they want to talk about their thing. No, not that thing. I mean, their other main preoccupation. You know, the Yankees, or the stock market, or the iPad or foreign films. If you're into the Mets, you don't want to get stuck with a day trader. Or maybe you do, but, at least, you'll know going in. And finally," she said, taking yet another dramatic pause. "The bottom line. Full disclosure. Snoring might not bother me, but it might bother you. Chemistry is downright fickle. But we all deserve to hear the unmitigated truth. Google can only give you so much, am I right?"
Again, there was silence, but not because anyone was confused. The beauty of the IDEA was sinking in, was gelling, was blooming like a rose in winter. As one, the semimonthly St. Mark's frozen lunch exchange began to applaud.
Hot Guys New York Trading Cards was born.
With a quick glance out the window at the snowplow spitting down West 72nd Street, Charlie Winslow pushed his chair across his office to computer number three, the Mac. There were six altogether, each running a different operating system, each rotating views of his Naked New York media group. There were setups like this, well not exactly like this, but similar enough, in an apartment in Queens, a bungalow in Los Angeles, a flat in London and an office in Sydney. Then there was the huge old mansion in Delaware where the bulk of his servers were housed.
Naked New York was a gluttonous bitch, needing constant attention. What had begun as a single blog about Manhattan in 2005 had become ten separate blogs generating at last count over two-hundred-million page hits per year, and far more importantly, roughly thirty million per annum in advertising revenue. NNY was just like any other conglomerate, only the products manufactured were ideas and opinions, words and tips, photographs and gossip. Ever changing to remain ever pertinent. The revenue stream was one hundred percent advertising, and while Charlie paid a small team of fulltime employees and a very large team of contributors, each blog was his baby whether it focused on celebrities, finance, sports, technology, gaming or even the female perspective on life. He trusted his editors, but it was his name on every masthead.
Which had made Charlie a celebrity, at least in the important cities. He liked that part. Hadn't considered it when he wrote up the initial business plan, but there were worse things than getting invited to every major event and having stunning women eager to accompany him to each one. He wasn't in Clooney's league, but Charlie's determination to remain a bachelor had passed from joke to fact to legend in the span of six years.
His phone rang, a call, not a text, and he answered, his Bluetooth gear attached to his ear directly after his morning shower. "Naomi. How are you today, gorgeous?"
"Filled with wonder and delight, as usual," his assistant said, her voice a nasal Brooklynese, her tone as dry as extra brut champagne.
Charlie grinned. "Any changes?"
"Nope. Just don't forget that the tailor is coming by at eleven. Don't make him wait. You did last time, and while you're precious as diamonds to me, his client list would make you tremble."
"You're always so good for my ego." Charlie glanced at his handset to see who wanted to interrupt his call. It was his cousin Rebecca. Odd, she rarely texted on a workday. "Got to run."
Naomi hung up even before Charlie pulled out the phone's keypad.
What's wrong? Has someone died? CW
A moment later, his phone beeped as his screen refreshed.
Everything's fine. I have a treat for you, though.
He sailed across his floor again, this time to check the stats on one of his latest clients. Their ads had been on rotation in five markets, and they were doing well in four.
What kind of treat? CW
He laughed. His thumbs flew. Come on, Becca. CW
She was his favorite cousin, which was saying something because he had a ton of them. His parents each had five siblings and they'd all bred like rabbits. Charlie had three siblings of his own, but only one had climbed aboard the baby wagon.
Instead of the beep announcing a return text, his phone rang. Charlie switched to voice.
"Seriously," Rebecca said. "I think you'll get a kick out of her. She's different. She's new. Brand-new. Still, wears colors, for God's sake. And she's bright, tiny, funny and completely starstruck. She'll swoon over you, and make that head of yours so large you won't be able to fit through your front door."
"Ah, Rebecca. I didn't know you cared. She sounds perfect."