Cassie Everson is an expert at escaping bad first dates. And, after years of meeting, greeting, and running from the men who try to woo her, Cassie is almost ready to retire her hopes for a husband—and children—altogether.
But fate has other plans, and Cassie’s online dating profile catches the eye of firefighter Jett Bentley. In Jett’s memory, Cassie Everson is the unreachable girl-of-legend from their high school days. Nervously, he messages her, setting off a chain of events that forces a reluctant Cassie back into the dating game.
No one is more surprised than Cassie when her first date with Jett is a knockout—but when Cassie finds herself caring for three sisters in an emergency foster placement, she decides to hide them from Jett to avoid scaring him off. When Jett’s sister’s addiction issues land her three children at his home, he decides the last thing Cassie needs to know about is his family drama.
Neither dares to tell the other about their unexpected and possibly permanent family members for fear of scaring away their potential soulmate, especially since they both listed "no kids” on their profiles! With six children between them and secrets mounting, can Cassie and Jett find a way forward?
Melissa Ferguson’s warmhearted debut reminds us that love can come in very small packages—and that sometimes our best-laid plans aren’t nearly as rewarding and fun as the surprises that come our way.
Praise for The Dating Charade:
“Melissa Ferguson is a sparkling new voice in contemporary rom-com. Though her novel tackles meaningful struggles—social work, child abandonment, adoption—it’s also fresh, flirty, and laugh-out-loud funny. Ferguson is going to win fans with this one!”—Lauren Denton, bestselling author of The Hideaway and Glory Road
“The Dating Charade will keep you smiling the entire read. Ferguson not only delights us with new love, with all its attendant mishaps and misunderstandings, but she takes us deeper in the hearts and minds of vulnerable children as Cassie and Jett work out their families—then their dating lives. An absolute treat!”—Katherine Reay, bestselling author of The Printed Letter Bookshop
- Stand-alone contemporary romance
- Full-length novel (76,000 words)
- Includes discussion questions for book clubs
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|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
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If one was going to dip one's toes into the murky, pestilential waters of online dating, an escape plan was critical.
Fake emergencies worked on occasion. You know, the gasp as you take a "phone call" and dash out the door to an imaginary emergency with an imaginary friend. But in general, Cassie found the method too cliché and utterly devoid of, well, imagination. Besides, whenever she needed to make a hasty exit, her dates usually saw through such tricks.
It'd taken months to create the perfect escape plan. Months of trial and error, of late nights scribbling elaborate routes under lamplight, of miniscule alterations schemed up with her most devious of friends.
But here, watching the stingrays circling the scuba diver in the aquarium glass behind him, she knew she'd finally done it. Her plan was positively, utterly airtight.
"Married, you ask?" Her date cocked his head to one side as though the question actually required mental searching. His thin lips pressed together, resembling the fish floating behind his head.
"Yes. Are you married?" Cassie's eyes ticked to the culprit: the ring finger on his left hand. The tan line was minimal, almost nonexistent. His nails were clean, and in Cassie's mind nothing good ever came from a man with immaculate hands. And yet even if her eyes had wronged her on those matters, there was no getting around the slight indention where a band would be and the slightest puff of the skin between ring area and knuckle.
Two minutes. After a year of online dating, she'd developed the ability to spot a rat in under two minutes. That deserved some sort of recognition.
His hand swiftly dropped from the glass just as hers lifted to discreetly tap it twice.
Escape plan in motion.
"Technically ... yes. But it's more complicated than you think." He laughed good-naturedly as he scratched the back of his head with his pristine hand.
She didn't smile in return.
His smile slipped down with his arm. "Surely you didn't expect me to drop something like this in the first five minutes, Cassandra —"
"I was going to tell you. But I just couldn't live with myself if I scared you off right away. Not someone —" He paused momentously, two fingers drawn to his lips. "— like you."
Ah, there it was. The date had moved into stage 2: overly sentimental compliments wrapped in false humility.
Cassie shifted her jacket to her other arm. Right. Here it came. "Because of our energy."
"Yes." He bobbed his head like the baby Groot sitting on her desk at work. "It's kinetic. The way I've been able to open up to you these past few weeks ..."
Six days. Via e-mail. On topics as deep and moving as the Yorkshire terrier in his profile picture.
Cassie pinched her face into a quiet, patient smile, letting the man go on with his excuses.
She knew she appeared complacent standing beside the floor-to-ceiling glass of Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, her gaze on him and yet attentive to her periphery. Echoes of excitement bounced around them as a massive blacktip reef shark slid across the wall. Children in dripping overcoats and galoshes stood on toes and pointed. Since the start of Thanksgiving break, the aquarium had been more crowded than ever.
But crowded was good. Crowded was ideal. The aquarium's ample noontime distractions were key factors in why she always chose her best friend's workplace to meet, greet, and ultimately sprint as fast as she could away from men. A restaurant? Facing your foe at a candlelit table for two? Fleeing from there mid-date would be the real challenge.
She slid her eyes to the glass, relieved to see Bree, her best friend, her quintessential partner in crime, kicking her fins their way. Parting a group of yellowtail fish, Bree halted directly behind him.
His back touched the glass as he faced Cassie completely. "Why don't we get out of here and find someplace quiet to talk? I know of a great little lunch place that just opened up on Newman —"
The sudden bang on the glass jolted him, halting his monologue. Startled, he turned around to find the scuba diver, all six foot two of her, shaking a gloved fist at him.
She banged again. Every face in the room turned from the glowing ultramarine tank to him.
"Do you know her?" Cassie raised an eyebrow as she took a step back.
"I've — I've never seen her before in my life." He squinted, clearly trying to see beyond the long floating braid, mask, mouth-piece, and BCD vest to the woman underneath.
Bree banged a third time.
Then, at last, she began the incomprehensible — and, it should be noted, utterly meaningless — show of charades. To the innocent onlooker, it looked positively seething.
"You sure? Old girlfriend, perhaps? Did your wife take up diving?"
"No, I ..." His eyes were glued to the glass, his neck reddening to match his thin polyester collar.
But Cassie was already melting into the crowd of onlookers, sharks, and spotted eagle rays. Her eyes never left his now babbling form as she moved backward like a chessboard knight, slipping around parents and kids and disappearing before he even realized she'd gone. At the private, staff-only door, she gave Bree a salute and slipped through it.
Both her smile and energy melted as she shut the door and leaned against it. For a brief moment she let the slime of the date slip off her, imagining it oozing down her mulberry velvet skirt and knee-high boots to the water drain in the middle of the floor.
To be completely honest, she'd really hoped for good things with this one. He was educated, good looking. His pictures avoided posing with toilets in the background. His interests followed the same strain as hers: running, cooking, festive gatherings with friends. He even claimed to volunteer with the residential kids at Wears Valley Ranch. She'd been particularly interested in talking with him about that one.
But what had happened? Where was she now? Back in her trusty panic room beside a rack of wetsuits, cleaning tanks, and bucket of squeegees.
Cassie let herself indulge in one more minute of pity partying before kicking off the wall and heading for the exit door. Gold and persimmon maple leaves danced around her boots as she stepped around the backside of the building to her car. She dropped her purse into the passenger seat and, with the engine humming, sorted through her choices for the suddenly free hour. It didn't take long before she shifted her car into Reverse.
Back to work it was.
Eight minutes and twenty-three seconds later, she pulled into her parking spot with its rusted sign: Crazy Boss Parks Here: All Other Cars Will Be Sold on the Black Market. (Sure, she probably shouldn't have kept the sign the Haven girls gave her a handful of years ago — encouraging delinquent behavior and all that. Still, it made her smile.)
Two large pots of orange mums sat on either side of the otherwise dull entrance to Girls Haven. It was a typical government building: all sharp brick corners and long-paned windows. The cobwebs adorning said windows were about as permanent as the emotionless beige paint on the inside walls — and not for Cassie's lack of trying. She'd vacuumed the webs from her office window at least five hundred times in the seven years she'd been director at the center for disadvantaged girls. As punishment for unruly moments, girls had been guided to her office window with a vacuum and bleach bottle more times than she could count. And yet somehow the webs always grew back overnight, wafting in the breeze as if laughing each morning at her return.
"What're you doing back already, Miss C?" Star's Chucks rhythmically slapped the brick wall as she sat on it, her feet swinging as she watched Cassie ascend the concrete steps. "Don't tell me. You got another flake."
"Oh, quite the contrary," Cassie replied, reaching the top step. "I'd say he was quite keen. Maybe by our third date he would've had all three of us out for dinner — him, me, and his wife."
"Hey, at least you would've made it to a third date." Star laughed, then dropped off the wall. Pausing, she looked Cassie up and down, then rested her fist resolutely on her hip with all the sass a fourteen-year-old could give. "You know what, Miss C? You're too picky."
Cassie gave a blunt laugh. "Is that so?"
"And I think it's about time you let us girls have a shot at finding you a man." The wind picked up, making the beads at the end of her dreadlocked ponytail clatter together. "Because let's admit it: you're cute, but you're not getting any younger."
"Cute but not getting any younger. How did you know that is exactly what I needed to hear today?" Cassie smiled, her eyes catching a glimpse of the rows of fire trucks parked across the street.
At least once a month someone asked if she was married. Had kids. Once she was asked if she had grandkids. She was just thirty-three. But anyone age twenty-five or older was the same to these girls — lumped into a giant bag labeled "ancient."
"Nice 'do." Cassie tugged lightly on one of Star's new locks. A silvery blue string weaved through it, all the way down to the bare, bony shoulders Star was sporting in thirty-degree weather. "You do it last night?"
Cassie looked closer, and her smile faded as her mental antenna rose.
Star stepped back, slipping the craftily spun lock through Cassie's fingers.
It looked good. Too good. "You do it yourself?"
Star's eyes darted to Cassie's boots, then the mums, before finally resting on the basketball hoop on the aged concrete pad beside the building. "No."
Cassie crossed her arms. Waited.
Seven years on the job at Girls Haven, and she was a master of the teenage standoff. People from nonprofits around the nation sought her advice and expertise on the teenage standoff. She practically led conference workshops on the teenage standoff.
Finally, as though the words had been extracted by pliers, Star spoke. "Ershanna did it."
Cassie's lips pursed. The times Star let anyone experiment with her hair were few and far between. Whenever she showed up with something worth keeping, you could bet a dime it was because Ershanna had taken her in. And the only time the nineteen-year-old, barely-an-adult-herself neighbor took Star and her sisters in was because something bad had happened at home.
"Why didn't you call me?" It was difficult to execute Cassie's perfectly even, calm tone.
"Because it wasn't a big deal." Star leaned against the brick, her eyes on the parents toting their kids across the Dollar General parking lot. A taut banner hung between two fire engines: Touch a Truck, 12–2 p.m. "Nothing worth calling about."
"Then why were you at Ershanna's? Because we both know it wasn't to do homework."
Star wrapped her arms tightly around her chest.
Cassie shrugged back, tucking her arms around her own chest, protecting her fingers as they pressed between the layers of thickly quilted down. "Fine. I can wait out here all day. And, Crazy Girl in a Tank Top, let's remember I'm the one who dressed for winter."
Star shifted her weight from one hip to another. Seemed to fight a shiver with another frost-bitten breeze. "Antony just came back. I didn't want to get into it, so —" She shrugged. "— I left."
At that, both Cassie's breath and fight fled. The last gift Star and her sisters should be getting for the holidays was a crusty, sporadically violent, drug-abusive stepdad back in their living room. Cassie would know; she'd been around for the sorry details the last time he landed in jail. "Last I checked, he wasn't allowed to be in the same three-hundred-foot radius as you. Or your sisters."
Star laughed without smiling. "Yeah, well, last I checked, he wasn't much into playing by the rules."
"Let me make some calls. You can stay with me tonight —"
"No, don't do that," Star said quickly. "He said he's moving
on this week. We're staying with Ershanna until he goes." Star paused, then pointed a finger at her. "I'm calling confidentiality on this, Miss C. You can't tell. You'd only make it worse."
"I think we should —"
Star glared harder.
Cassie clenched her jaw. "Fine."
Star nodded and put her finger back into her jeans pocket as though holstering it. Then she involuntarily quaked in the cold.
Cassie put an arm around the girl's shoulder. "But I do want to hear that he's gone by Sunday, all right? I'm going to be blowing up your phone the next few days until you confirm that."
"Yeah. I know. I already blocked your number." Star gave a mild smile beneath Cassie's downy wing, and together they spun toward the double doors.
A blast of hot air greeted them from the radiator. The entrance hall was empty, only a few voices coming from the game room. It wasn't surprising. Girls Haven always emptied out during the holidays. Those who showed up did so because they either had no other option or were loyal to the Haven. Star, the special case, came for both.
Together they walked down the hall. It smelled of bleach and microwaved popcorn. To be fair, it always smelled of bleach and microwaved popcorn.
"So? What'd'ya say?" At the last second Star slipped past Cassie into her office and plunked into Cassie's rolling chair. She spun it in a circle before putting her hands on the keyboard.
Cassie slung her purse onto the hook behind the door. "What do I say to what? You being in my seat? Move."
A gleeful scream echoed down the hall, and a second later a girl grabbed the doorframe like a life raft before two others popped up behind her. Whatever game they'd been playing was swiftly abandoned, the girls lured in by the sight and sound of fresh gossip.
"What are ya doin'?" A suspicious tone lilted Bailey's voice as she pushed her hair from her eyes and strolled in.
"We're setting Miss C up on hotornot.com," Star replied.
Cassie raised her voice. "It's not hotornot.com," she said, nudging Star out of her chair.
Still, in a matter of seconds the girls crouched around Cassie and the computer, breathing the same twelve inches of air despite the two hundred square feet of unoccupied, perfectly good office space. Through the window, flakes started to dust the road as a song played from one of the girl's phones. Cassie couldn't hear the words but recognized the unsavory tune enough to double tap the icon of her desktop. Sinatra's "You Make Me Feel So Young" filled the room.
All four girls moaned.
Cam spoke, the song from her phone still playing somewhere within her cheetah-print jeggings. "This song definitely doesn't make me feel so young. I feel a hundred and five listening to this cra —"
"Crazy awesome mix, Miss C." Star said. She threw two thumbs up. "It's downright inspirational."
Cassie rolled her eyes. Clearly Star was more interested in spending the next hour searching for suitors than listening to another of Cassie's soapboxes on self-respect and teen pregnancy.
"Knock-knock." Bree's words matched the rapping on the open door. Her fire-red hair fell to her waist in a wet braid, the weave so thick one could've trusted it to rappel down a burning building. She held up two gas-station coffees. "I came as fast as I could. Left a trail of gear all the way to my car." She handed the coffee to Cam, who handed it to Bailey, who bypassed Star and gave it directly to Cassie.
Bree pushed a couple of stacks of papers aside and took a seat on Cassie's desk.
Cassie huffed and waved a hand around the room. "All right, guys. There are, like, five other chairs here if you haven't noticed."
"So, what happened with the guy?" Bree said. "Besides, of course, trying to get me fired after you left."
Cassie's brows shot up, both shoulders and knees pitched together from being compressed between the group and wall. "He talked with Louis?"
Bree gave a flippant wave. "Oh, you know how he is. Louis fiddled with his whistle while your guy rambled on. But then your guy turned on me and started to get in my face about it, and you should've seen Louis. Went all Hulk on the guy. I ended up pulling him back and calming him down." She smiled as if at a fond memory. "Good ol' Louis."
Cassie grimaced. Bree's supervisor, Louis, was not the kind of man who'd spent his prime years scuba diving in Bermuda and off the coast of Peru, in much more adventurous places than Ripley's Aquarium. He was not the type who'd purposefully shaved his head to achieve a Bruce Willis look. No, Louis, poor Louis, was a kindly middle-aged man ten years Bree's senior. He was fond of whistles — some would say oddly so. He liked the twelve African black-footed penguins that made their residence there. Rumor had it he sang to them with squid-and-fish cake on their birthdays. Last, but certainly not least, Louis was head over off-brand Keds for the woman with enough spice to flavor a ten-gallon pot of chili.
Excerpted from "The Dating Charade"
Copyright © 2019 Melissa Ferguson.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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