The Beauty of Us | Excerpt Reveal

Chapter 1 ~Riley~ “I’m done,” I announce as I stomp into the bar and see two of my four business partners behind it. Kat, the bar manager and maybe the coolest woman I know, has her flaming red hair up in ringlets, and Mia, the master chef, has pulled off her chef hat and let her long black hair down around her shoulders. They both look as exhausted as I feel. “What, exactly, are you done with?” Mia asks as she pours herself a glass of red wine, batting Kat’s hands out of the way. “I can do this myself.” “I have a system,” Kat says, earning an eye roll from Mia, who passes the bottle to her, takes a sip from her glass, and walks around the bar to sit on a stool. “Men,” I say as I take the stool next to hers. The bar is pretty empty, as it’s nearing closing time in the middle of the week. There’s just the three of us and a man sitting at the far end of the bar, nursing what looks to be a Jack and Coke. And I’m not even going to think about the fact that his profile is hot. “You say that at least once a month,” Mia says. “I mean it,” I reply, and nod when Kat offers me a glass of Mia’s wine. “Fill the glass to the top.” “You’re both killing me with your wine habits,” Kat grumbles. “There’s a correct way to pour a glass of wine.” “We’re not fancy like you,” I reply, and offer her a smile when she passes me my glass. Kat simply shrugs and goes to work washing the few glasses in her sink. “So why has the male species pissed you off this time?” “So, I went out last night with this guy,” I begin, and take a sip of my wine, gathering my thoughts. “Let’s say he was . . . not my type.” “In what ways?” Mia asks. “I mean, did he have blond hair instead of dark? Or didn’t drive the right car?” ​ “You make me sound shallow,” I say with a frown. “Those things aren’t the deal breakers.” “We don’t think you’re shallow,” Kat says. “What are the deal breakers with this one?” “Well, he was super sweaty. Like, just-walked-out-of-the-gym sweaty. And at first I thought, well, maybe he’s just nervous. I mean, we haven’t gone out before, so that’s pretty normal.” “Sure,” Mia says with a nod. “But, the longer we sit there, the more he sweats. And I’m talking, he has to use his dinner napkin to keep wiping the sweat away the way Whitney Houston did when she was in concert.” “So, he’s a sweater,” Kat says, then grimaces. “Can you imagine how much he probably sweats during sex?” “Ew.” I wrinkle my nose, almost gagging at the thought. “No. No, I don’t want to think about that. So, he’s super sweaty and smelly. And it’s really the smell that did us in.” The dude at the end of the bar chuckles and takes a sip of his drink. I ignore him and keep talking. “So, aside from the sweating and the stench, was he nice?” Mia asks. “I think so,” I reply. “I feel like a horrible person, but I didn’t hear much of what he said because I was too distracted by the rivers of sweat on his face, and the smell.” “Okay, that’s pretty gross,” Kat says with a nod. “I mean, in his defense, maybe it’s a glandular thing, or anxiety, or he has large pores or something, but I don’t think I could get past the smell either.” “Exactly,” I reply, holding my glass up in salute. “And the guy last week didn’t smell or sweat, but I guess he assumed that if he bought me dinner he could get in my pants. Which he can’t.” The guy down the bar from us laughs again, and now I can’t ignore him anymore. I turn to face him, and have to take a breath when I really get a good eyeful of him. He’s tall, lean, and his forearms look fantastic in the rolled sleeves of his button-down shirt. His brown hair is a bit messy, probably from shoving his fingers through it. And he’s wearing black-rimmed glasses. “Hi there,” I say, getting his attention. He glances my way with seriously sexy green eyes and I have to remind myself that I am done with men. Because otherwise, I’d be tempted to ask him out. “Hello,” he says. “Did you want in on this conversation?” I ask, swirling my wine. “I don’t think I have anything to add,” he says with a shrug. “I’m just a guy.” “Maybe you can give me some insight into the brain of a man,” I reply thoughtfully. “Because I’m stumped. Completely stumped.” “Well, I don’t sweat like your last love interest,” he says with a cocky grin, making me laugh. “He was definitely not my love interest,” I reply. “And I’m no doctor, so I can’t assume that he has a glandular issue like you suggest. Could have been nerves. I mean, you’re a beautiful woman. It makes sense that he might be a bit nervous. Doesn’t mean a man can’t use some deodorant, though.” “Yes. Exactly. But what is it with guys thinking they can just jump right into sex? I mean, I’m not a hooker.” “Whoa,” he says, holding his hands up and grinning. Damn him for having a killer smile. “No one called you a hooker.” “Well, I think it’s sort of implied that they think of me that way when they take me out, buy dinner, and then get pissed when I don’t put out. I’m way too picky for that. I have standards.” “As you should,” he says in all seriousness. “Maybe you’re just meeting assholes.” “Well, that seems to be all I meet,” I reply, and sip my wine. “I mean, what do you have to say for the rest of your species? Because lesbihonest, this isn’t worth a penis. None of this is.” He just tips his head back and laughs, long and loud, and it charms me. He throws back the last of his drink and turns in the stool to face me head-on. And then those incredible green eyes of his take me in from the tip of my Jimmy Choos to the top of my blond head. “Maybe they’re simply attracted to you.” “You don’t get it,” I reply with a sigh. “Attraction is fine. Flirting is fine. But since when has it been okay to not show any respect for the person you’re with? I have so many doubts about the human race as a whole at this point. Sometimes I wish the Enterprise was real, and Chris Pine could sweep me away to the Death Star, and we could have a bunch of Jedi babies and stuff.” Mr. Man just stares at me for a moment, then scowls. “You’ve just combined Star Wars and Star Trek.” “Whatever,” I say with a shrug. “It’s all the same thing.” “No,” he says, and clears his throat. “No, it’s not the same thing at all.” “But you understand what I’m saying.” “No, I don’t understand because you just combined Star Trek and Star Wars. They’re not the same thing, so everything you just said is . . . incomprehensible.” I roll my eyes and look to Kat and Mia for help, but they’re just smiling and watching me banter with the stranger. “You guys are no help.” “He’s right,” Kat says with a shrug. “And this is all fascinating.” “Not all men expect to have sex on a first date,” he continues. “In fact, I would have to say that most men don’t, unless they picked you up at a bar, and you were grinding on them on the dance floor all night, and you’re twenty-two.” “None of those things happened,” I reply. “Well, then, I’d say he’s just a jackass.” “There seems to be an explosion in the jackass population,” I reply, and sigh, passing my glass to Kat for a refill. “Where are you meeting them?” he asks, and I bite my lip. “I don’t want to tell you.” “Online,” he says with a nod. “I didn’t say that!” “Didn’t have to. If you met him at the gym or the grocery store, or somewhere else in person, you wouldn’t be embarrassed.” “I’m not embarrassed.” “Yes, you are. Otherwise, you wouldn’t mind telling me.” “Fine.” I sigh and rub my forehead with my fingertips. “I met them online.” “Stop that,” he says. ​ “I don’t know where else I’d meet people,” I reply. “I’m at work at least fifty hours a week. I don’t do school or clubs or church, and I rarely go to the grocery store because I always eat here.” “I could stop feeding you,” Mia interjects and I toss her a glare. “I’m just saying, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” “I don’t understand any of the words you just said.” I squint at him, trying to process. “Switch it up,” he says with a grin. “Try to meet people somewhere else. I mean, you didn’t meet me online, and I’m not an asshole.” “Sure, you’re cute, and you look like you have your shit together, but I suspect that once I got to know you I’d learn that you have mommy issues and fourteen dogs.” “You might,” he says with a thoughtful nod. “I do hide those things well. All I’m saying is, stop using the dating sites and try meeting people in real life.” “Yeah. Easy for you to say.” I pout into my wineglass. “Do I need to send you some money for this counseling session?” “Nah, the first one’s on me,” he says, tossing that crazy-hot smile at me again. “Just don’t combine Star Wars and Star Trek anymore and that’s payment enough for me.” He pulls a few bills out of his wallet and tosses them on the bar, then stands to leave. “Have a good night, and good luck,” he says. “Thanks.” Just as he’s almost out of view, I call out, “Wait! I didn’t ask your name.” “Trevor,” he says, and my stomach immediately does at least four cartwheels. “Trevor Cooper.” “You’re early,” is all I can think to say. My cheeks are burning, my fingers immediately tremble. “You’re not supposed to be here for two more days.” “I like to come early. Get the lay of the land, that sort of thing.” He smiles and waves. “See you in a couple of days.” He walks away, and as soon as I hear the front door close, I turn to my friends and just stare at them in utter horror. “Tell me that didn’t just happen.” Kat snickers and Mia just flat-out laughs, slapping the bar. “This is hilarious,” Mia says with glee. “No, it’s not,” I reply. “I look horrible, I sound like a fucking teenager who can’t get a boyfriend. He’s here on business.” I drag my fingers through my hair, then lean on the bar in despair. “He wasn’t here on business tonight,” Mia says, and pats my back. “Besides, it’s okay with me if he doesn’t stay. I didn’t want him here in the first place.” “No, it’s not okay if he doesn’t stay,” I reply, and come up for air. “The fact that Best Bites TV wants to come here to film Seduction is a big deal, Mia.” “I know, you’ve told me.” “I mean, this will put us on the map globally. And I know you don’t love the idea of a camera crew being in the kitchen, but it won’t be forever.” “We’ve already had this conversation,” she says with a frown. “Not that it matters because I was just a complete ninny with the producer of the show right here in the bar.” “A ninny?” Kat asks with a grin. “I like that word.” “Yeah, well, it’s not describing you right now,” I reply with a sigh. “He must think I’m completely ridiculous.” “I don’t think so,” Mia replies. “He smiled at you, and looked you up and down like you’re a heaping scoop of ice cream and he couldn’t wait to eat you up.” “Whatever,” I reply, and roll my eyes. “Now I have to pull it together and have a professional relationship with him. I’m the one that has to work with him, not you guys.” Since I’m the marketing and publicity expert in our fivesome, working with Best Bites TV is all on my shoulders. Which is fine, and what I enjoy, but I’ve never failed so badly during the first meeting with a professional. “I’m mortified. I have to quit and move to Mexico.” “Sun and drinks all day, Enrique on hand to service your every whim?” Kat nods thoughtfully. “Doesn’t sound too bad, really.” “Maybe we should all go,” Mia says with a nod. “You’d hate it,” I reply, and nudge her with my shoulder. “You’d worm your way back into the kitchen to take over the place.” “True. I’d better stay here.” “I don’t think any of us needs to move away,” Kat says as she stows away the last clean glass. “He didn’t seem at all put off by your man crisis, Ri.” “Dear sweet baby Jesus,” I mutter, and shake my head. “What is wrong with me?” “You’re letting these men get in your head,” Mia says. “Seriously, stop trying so hard. My mom always says that love will happen when you’re not looking for it.” “That didn’t work either.” I dig my fingertips into the muscles of my neck, making a mental note to call for an appointment for a massage. “I’m really not a desperate woman, you know. I don’t need a man to complete me.” “You’ve never been desperate,” Mia says. “It’s not a bad thing to want someone special in your life.” “Exactly. That’s a perfect way to phrase it.” I grab my handbag and lean in to kiss each of them on the cheek before I walk away. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow if I don’t die of embarrassment tonight.” “Sleep well!” Kat calls out. It’s been a long day. Hell, it’s been a long year. I can’t complain, though, because the restaurant isn’t just thriving, it’s bursting at the seams. At the rate we’re going, I can see us expanding to other Pacific Northwest cities in the next three years. We’re always packed, and now that the television show is going to happen, we’ll be turning people away. It’s something to be proud of, and maybe a little scared of too. When Addie, Cami, Mia, Kat, and I opened less than two years ago, we didn’t anticipate this at all. We just wanted the restaurant to be successful, to support ourselves, and we did that and more in the first six months. But success is also exhausting, and that’s exactly where I am tonight. Exhausted. Why am I using so much energy on meeting men online when I should be focused on work? I’m happy and independent. But damn it, I see Addie, Cami, and Kat with their men and I can’t help but be a tiny bit envious at the bliss they’ve found. The guys don’t pull them away from the business; they support it too, and help in any way they can. It’s a team effort. I want to be a part of a team. And, I really do want to get laid on a regular basis. I mean, I’m a red-blooded woman, and I have needs. And standards. The drive to my house in Hillsboro doesn’t take long, and soon I’ve changed into blue yoga pants and a coral tank top, sitting in my favorite chair in the corner of my bedroom, my laptop in my lap. I feel like I should send Trevor an e-mail and apologize for tonight. What he heard is the epitome of unprofessional, and that’s not the way I want our professional relationship to begin. But I don’t need to dig the hole any deeper. Sometimes it’s best to just keep your big mouth shut. I have a master’s degree in marketing and publicity, and that would be my first piece of advice to any client in this situation. Less is more. Stop talking. I nod, deciding to take my own advice, and open the laptop. I work my way through four of the online dating sites that I’ve subscribed to. I have messages waiting in each of them, from men I’ve never seen before, and a few that I did go on a date with, and it was definitely not a match. Including Sweaty Man. Hi Riley, I had a great time last night. Let’s do it again soon! Greg No thanks. I type out my typical “it’s not you, it’s me” response and hit send, and then I shock the shit out of myself as I methodically unsubscribe from each site, erasing my profiles. This isn’t working. Maybe Trevor was right. Just stop it. Meet someone organically. Or just die an old maid. I’m sure there are worse ways to go. Like, I could have a fatal skin disease or something. Dying alone doesn’t seem quite as bad in comparison. I’m just about to close the computer and head to bed when there’s a notification that I have new e-mail. I’m about to ignore it for tonight, but the name “Trevor Cooper” shows up in the sender’s name, and I can’t open it fast enough. Riley, I’m writing via my personal email, as this doesn’t pertain to our professional relationship. I wanted to apologize for this evening. I should have introduced myself when you first came into the bar. I wasn’t expecting the conversation that began upon your arrival. Please accept my apology. I look forward to seeing you in a few days. Warmly, Trevor P.S. The Death Star is in Star Wars. It’s also been destroyed, so you can’t go there. Sorry. I grin and read through the note twice more. Okay, this was a nice guy move. Trevor is obviously kind, and maybe a bit of a Star Wars geek. But he’s temporary, and a colleague. So the attraction I feel for him doesn’t count. At all. It doesn’t matter that he’s cute and smart and has a great job. Doesn’t matter at all. And I just gave up on dating as a whole, so there’s that.

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