Read an Excerpt
"Okay, Ladies." Shannon Fitzgerald, the founder of the newest dating trend in Manhattan, had her arms up high, holding an open box. "Are you ready?"
No one answered. In fact, Natalie Gellar was pretty sure no one was even breathing. All twenty-four women in the room were leaning forward, though. Fingers at the ready, hope and anticipation doubling heart rates.
"On your mark "
Five long utility tables had been pushed together into a rectangle on what was anything but a normal Wednesday evening in the St. Marks Church community room.
"Get set "
Natalie stood her ground, shoulder to shoulder with the women around her, determined to do whatever was necessary to get the right card, the perfect card. The Hot Guys Trading Card that would change her life.
Shannon tossed the latest batch of cards into the center of the tables and sprinted out of the way.
As if they were attacking the first Black Friday sale table at Barney's, everyone went nuts.
Natalie grabbed whatever cards she could reach, skimming the writing, ignoring the pictures, tossing lawyers and accountants and musicians away like so much litter. Baseball fans, football fans, hockey fans. Ah, a reader, but crap, not the kinds of books she liked. Again and again, the cards were stirred. She heard squeals, disappointed moans, clapping and apologies as people wrestled for the same cards.
The word librarian made her heart skip a beat, and in the category of Marry, Date or One-Night Stand, his check mark next to Marry made her hands shake. Instead of listing a favorite restaurant, the card said he loved to cook and according to Tracy Jackson, the woman who'd submitted him, he was great at it. His passion was World of Warcraft, which wasn't her thing but she could totally deal with that. And then, oh, God, the bottom line: looking for a kindred spirit, someone who could be the Lilypad to his Marshmallow!
The reference to the sappy couple on How I Met Your Mother was the best gift ever. Not just because Natalie liked the show but because anyone who thought of himself in film or television terms was exactly the kind of man she was looking for. This was better than she'd hoped for. By a mile.
Now, to turn the card over. To see what Max Zimm looked like.
Her heart pounding after everything she'd read, she tried to calm down. After all, first impressions were as good as meaningless. Most everyone she found beautiful had started out as objectively nothing to write home about, but as she'd gotten to know them, they'd transformed. So even if Max had a handlebar mustache or googly eyes, she didn't care. At all. It was the inside that mattered, not the packaging.
After a deep breath, she turned the card over. And nearly fainted.
The nerdy librarian was a stunner.
"Who is that?"
Natalie tore her gaze from the picture of Max Zimm to look at her friend Denise. She'd introduced Natalie to the Trading Cards, bless her. "He's very good-looking, right?"
"Very good-looking doesn't quite cover it. Can I-"
Denise sighed. "Okay. But why did you pick him?"
Natalie turned the card over, hoping that she hadn't had some kind of neurological episode. "Librarian," she said. "Wants to get married. And he wants a Lilypad to go with his Marshall."
Her friend snatched the card out of Natalie's hand. "No. He. Did. Not. This is someone's idea of a joke. Oh, my God, who submitted him?" Denise continued to stare at Max Zimm's picture as she shouted, "Is Tracy Jackson here?"
Natalie gaped. Denise was the very picture of a demure librarian in her cardigan and cat-eye glasses, even though there was nothing else stereotypical about her. And now Natalie could add "bellows like a longshoreman" to the list of her friend's abilities.
No one responded, so Natalie turned her attention back where it belonged. "How could a librarian who looks like him live in Manhattan without us knowing about it?"
"I don't know." Denise shook her head. "Although we haven't met every one."
"But he'd be talked about. He'd go to conferences. We can't be that many degrees of separation from any librarian in this state. It doesn't make sense."
Denise lifted an arched eyebrow. "It does if he works for a think tank."
Natalie chewed on that for a moment. "Huh."
"He's probably some amazing genius who works for a top-secret government agency."
"S.H.I.E.L.D.," Natalie said. "He works for S.H.I.E.L.D."
"S.H.I.E.L.D. is fictitious," Denise said. "He's not one of the Avengers."
Plucking the card back from her drooling pal's hand, Natalie shrugged. "Then a S.H.I.E.L.D.-like agency. It could happen."
"Nat, he's already got the ability to stun with his looks. What else do you want?"
"Okay, true. Maybe he's new to the area. He could have been working anywhere. Europe, even."
"Who is that?" Iris Corcoran, a friend who was brand-new to Hot Guys Trading Cards, shouldered her way between Denise and Natalie. "And does he have a twin brother?"
Natalie just smiled and gripped the card more tightly.
"I thought you didn't care about looks," Iris said.
"It's not the front of the card that has me dazzled.
It's the back."
"Fine, it's the front, too, but I would have chosen him anyway, no matter what he looked like."
"It sure doesn't hurt that he could be on the cover of Gorgeous Guy Monthly," Iris quipped.
"He may look like a movie star, but don't let it go to your head. There are all kinds of guys here." Denise held up the card she'd picked. The man was pleasant-looking, slightly balding, with a very nice smile. "He plays the clarinet for the American Symphony Orchestra."
"He's cute," Iris said. "Frankly, I'm just thrilled that every single guy on a card has been personally submitted by someone in the group."
"I know, right?" For Natalie, the trading cards were truly a godsend, especially for a woman like her, who wasn't gorgeous, cared more about her work than her social life and tended to be a homebody. "Now that Oliver's out of the picture-"
"Oh, my God," Iris said, wincing. "I meant to call when I heard you guys broke up."
Natalie waved the wince away. "I'm fine about it. Better than fine. I had a feeling he was going to propose and instead of being happy, I was dreading it. When it finally happened, he didn't even bother with a ring. Said I should go pick one out myself. As long as it didn't cost more than forty-two hundred dollars. Talk about a major wake-up call. I don't know how I let it go on so long, really." She smiled at the too-good-to-be-true card she'd picked. "Max may be stunning, but if he's not the right man for me, I'll put the card straight back in the pile."
Iris squeezed Natalie's forearm. "Great attitude. One I intend to adopt as soon as I'm eligible. Don't get me wrong, I like that members have to submit men they know before they can select cards, but I can't wait! I already know three guys who want to be Hot Guys."
Denise leaned toward Natalie. "You decide to put that card back into the pot, I want to know about it first."
Just as she was going to respond, a woman she'd seen but not met leaned into their small huddle. "Someone asked about Tracy Jackson?"
"You're Tracy?" Denise asked.
"No, but she's a friend."
"She's not a practical joker, is she?"
"Tracy?" the woman asked as if the question itself was nuts. "No. She's No. She's really straightforward. She would have been here, but she's at a meeting in Toronto. She submitted two of her friends, though. I haven't met either one, but if Tracy likes them, they're bound to be top-notch."
Natalie relaxed. Not all the way. She would still call Tracy and get more information before she called Max. That would give her time to build up her courage.
"I'm Sandy, by the way. You're Denise, right? You work at the Columbia University library?"
Introductions were made, which was a good thing. It pulled Natalie back down to earth. Almost. She still couldn't get over Max's looks, but looks only went so far. He still needed to live up to the back of the card, which was no mean feat.
He should get up, get showered, dressed, call someone, do something. According to the TV weather woman, anyone who wasn't outside frolicking under the clear blue sky was an idiot. It was day three of Max's three-week vacation, so he could do whatever the hell he wanted. After three years of operating on adrenaline, frolicking wasn't anywhere on his list. But he was hungry.
Max sighed as he gazed upon his best companion and constant source of succor: his 56-inch LED high-definition television. He couldn't remember what baseball teams were currently playing. After slipping in and out of sleep ever since he'd crawled onto the couch following a full nine hours in his bed, that wasn't a big surprise. Actually, he had no idea what the standings were, who was on the injury list, or if the Mets had any chance for glory. There'd been no fantasy baseball this year, or last year. Not for him, anyway. It was tragic. Some fan he was.
Again, he thought about going out. A simple proposition at face value, but, in fact, it would require him to make a series of decisions. What to wear, where to go, how to get there, whether to go alone? Try to hook up? He was exhausted just thinking about it. After such a long stretch of the hardest, most consuming work he'd ever faced, he didn't want to make another decision for the rest of his life. With one very big exception: what to do about his future.
It wasn't rhetorical. He really had to decide, and soon. Huh, he'd meant to call his dad again, get his advice this time instead of just saying a quick hey, but seeing as it was the middle of a workday, he figured he'd wait until that night to phone him.
The tort case had devoured his life, and that included not checking in regularly with his folks. They'd told him not to worry about it, but he missed them. And his brother. Mike was busy, too, with his newest art gallery. At least they texted from time to time.
Reaching behind him, Max adjusted his pillow and an unfortunate turn of his head made him realize he should have made the effort to shower several days ago. His sloth was all Manhattan's fault. The only exercise he'd gotten since he'd come home to rest was walking to the door to get his deliveries. Takeout, groceries, fluff-and-fold laundry. A person could get anything in this city, any day, any time. He loved the hell out of it.
What he also loved was burgers. His stomach gurgled and he snatched his cell phone from the coffee table. When he caught the actual time, his stomach made another loud protest and he hit speed dial fourteen. After ordering an Alpine Burger and fries from Paul's Da Burger Joint, his hand dropped to his side like a dead weight. It wasn't possible to be this tired for so long. Maybe he was sick or something.
Or maybe he'd just worked hundred-hour weeks for three goddamned years with virtually no time off.
He grinned as he put his phone back on the table. It had been worth it. Every hour. Because right now the senior partners at Latham, Kirkland and Jones were deciding just how much money they were going to spend to make him happy. Happy enough to stay put. To ward off the headhunters, who'd already come calling. His firm had won an unwinnable case, due in large part to his ideas and hard work. The whole damn seafood industry was falling all over itself sending gift baskets and champagne to the office. Even better, they'd been congratulating him. Personally.
So, yeah. This break was not just going to rejuvenate him, it was going to make the firm sweat while Max considered every option available. Equity, naturally, but at what percentage? A new office? Use of the executive suite in London, absolutely, and the Malibu house in California.
Once he hauled himself off the couch, the shower appealed greatly. Stepping under the hot water relaxed his muscles and felt amazing. It even helped remind him that a real life was once again an option. At least until the next megacase.
Maybe later he'd venture out to his local watering hole. He liked Swift for its laid-back atmosphere, the good-looking women, excellent beer selection and hell, the good-looking women were all that mattered.
By the time he finished shaving, his arms felt heavy and his desire for action had diminished. The bar would be there tomorrow night. And maybe by then he'd be his old self again.
With ten minutes to go until she had to leave St. Marks, Bobbie, a hairdresser Natalie had met at last month's meeting, pulled her aside to talk about the card Natalie had submitted. Randy was a friend of her tenant, Fred Mason. Both guys worked for the Museum of Modern Art and the three of them had bonded over their mutual love of cards and board games. Randy was a rock-solid, wonderful man. She'd actually entertained the idea of a romantic relationship with him, but he wasn't for her. He didn't care much for movies, which was a deal breaker.
After Natalie had offered a bunch of assurances about Randy, Bobbie whipped out her cell phone and called him. They had a date set up in under five minutes. Obviously thrilled, Bobbie looked at her card again, and then headed back to the other side of the room. Natalie didn't rejoin her friends, however. Not yet. She pulled out her Android. Toronto was in the same time zone, and it was only 7:00 p.m. Tracy Jackson might have time to talk.
"Tracy, this is Natalie Geller from Trading Cards."
"Oh, hi. How's it going?"
Natalie cupped her free ear to block out the laughter and chatter in the room. "Great. I hope I'm not disturbing you."
"You're not, but I'm waiting for a car that's going to be here any minute. Did you pick one of my guys?"
"Oh, he's wonderful. Exactly as advertised, I'm not kidding. Really. You'll love him. Oops, my ride's here. Sorry."
"No problem. Go."
"Can you call again on Saturday? I'll be done with all this by then."
"Of course. Thank you." Natalie turned off the phone and looked at Max's face. His dark hair was a little on the messy side, but in that windblown, artfully tousled way that made her want to run her fingers through it. His lips hinted at a warm smile, and she had to admit, thick eyebrows completely worked on him.
What made her swallow hard, though, were his eyes. They were a fascinating mix of green close to the pupil and blue on the outer edges. Sectoral heterochromia. She'd never met a person with that genetic anomaly, but she'd grown up with a cat that had one brown eye and one green. She found it hard to look at the other parts of his face when those eyes were so unusually captivating. What must he look like in person?
Instead of reading his answers one more time, she kept on staring at his eyes, wondering what color he'd listed on his driver's license. He'd be like a chameleon, depending on what he was wearing.
At the thought of actually phoning him, anxiety shot through all her high hopes. Calling a man for a date was difficult enough, but picturing Max Zimm on the other end of the line made her want to hyperventilate. The men in her life had never been known for their eyes, or any other body part. Oliver was only memorable for not being memorable at all. He really should have been a spy or a thief, because he was so ordinary no one would think twice about him. He'd have gotten away with murder. But the only crime she knew he was capable of was leaving his thumb on the scale when he weighed corned beef for his customers.
Despite her nerves, Natalie would call Max. No, that wasn't quite accurate. She would call because of her nerves. So there.