Contemporary Fiction Romance

“I’m not swiping left or right or up or down on that thing,” Bettie told her friend, shoving the phone back at her. “Dating like that is ridiculous. No one wants to get to know each other or find something lasting. It’s all hookups and hangups.”

Her friend Shay kept swiping through the app.

“Guys are so self-serving,” she reiterated. “Look at that one, he’s sooooo perfect looking. I bet he really just wants someone to do his laundry and tell him he’s amazing.” She peeked at the screen as Shay swiped. Brenton.

“What kind of a name is Brenton?” she asked. “I can’t with this, Shay, I really just can’t.”

Shay shrugged, and slyly swiped the photo before telling her friend to just relax. It’d been almost a year since the unspoken of breakup and every time Bettie went out on a date it was met with an immediate cynicism. No one measured up to the impossible standards she set, and she just assumed no one actually cared whether she was smart or funny or kind or well read or whether she knew how to make a kickass latte or knew how to draft the perfect press release. They all seemed to want a one-night-stand or someone to take over their mom’s job after they got kicked out of the house.

Shay threw an arm around her friend and rested her head against her shoulder. Her curly hair flipped in Bettie’s face, and she made a show of spitting it out of her mouth, laughing. The girls stood there for a minute, silent in thought, until Bettie sighed and shrugged out of the sideways hug.

“Gotta go, friend,” she told her with another sigh. “It’s time to make the sensible money.” Bettie put two fingers to her brow in mock salute and grabbed her bag. Slinging it over her shoulder, she waved and stuck her tongue out before exiting the café.

Bettie worked two jobs, the first being a barista at the local coffee shop downtown. She loved working the espresso machine; it was mindless and creative, and she got excellent tips from the young artsy types who frequented the shop.

Her second job was what her mom called her “sensible career,” though Bettie thought it far from sensible. The entry level pay was so low and the hours so bad that most days the café alone paid the rent. She worked as a public relations assistant, usually just writing press releases and finding background info for her boss and their mid-level clients. Her boss wouldn’t let her touch any of the bigger responsibilities and saw her mostly as an intern to bring coffee. Coffee from the very same artsy café she also worked in.

It wasn’t so bad, really. She stayed busy, got plenty of exercise, and she shared an apartment with Shay, who always paid her half of the rent and utilities. She loved her city life.

Stopping to check her hair in the reflection of a storefront, she reached for her bag, swapping her comfy flats for a pair of power heels. The PR office had a strict “dress the part” policy, asking employees to wear business and business casual outfits complete with “shiny shoes.” Her boss equated shine with success.

As Bettie straightened her skirt, retucked her sleeveless white top, and adjusted the scarf she’d also pulled from her bag, she admitted she did feel more professional. Her reflection smiled back at her, her blond hair darkening in the glass. She had to keep it in a ponytail or out of her face while she worked at the café, but her PR boss preferred Bettie’s long waves to be tightened into a chignon or in a claw clip.

“We aren’t cheerleaders or athletes, Bettie,” she would say. “We need sharp details in our line of work.” Her words would make Bettie straighten her posture and nod lightly, taking it all in. She wanted to do well and make her boss proud. Ever since Bettie was a teen she had wanted to work at a public relations firm, and now that she held an entry level position all she wanted to do was raise through the ranks and do the big things, make the power moves, save crises.

She wanted to crush the competition and own her world.

Winking at herself, she added some lipstick, applied some hairspray, and walked as quickly as she could in her heels to the tallest building on the block, where the firm was located. The elevator ride to the 12th floor was quiet and empty. Her odd hours often meant she was able to avoid the bustle of the usual 8-5 crowd. It was a nice calm before the storm.

“Bettie!” she heard immediately upon opening the heavy glass door. “Is Bettie here yet?”

She rushed to the large wooden desk and signed into the electronic employee clock software, winking at the frazzled receptionist.

“Don’t worry, I’m going,” she assured her, and hustled back to the glass walled office her boss commanded from, while everyone else’s cubicles dimmed in comparison.

Diane Covington, read the shiny nameplate beside the door. Bettie briefly touched the metal, better than any award or bonus check she could think of. Manifesting her future, she tapped the nameplate like she did every time she entered the room—well, any time she could get away with it—and stepped inside.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Covington! I trust you’ve had a lovely morning?” Diane, typing furiously at an expensive laptop on her expensive desk, looked sharply at her employee before smiling lightly.

“Oh, good, Bettie, I was just looking for you, and you’ve once again popped in at just the right moment.” She paused, looking closer at the young woman, a crease forming in her forehead. “Bettie, you smell like coffee beans, and your hair is a mess. Why must you spread yourself so thin working at that awful place when you have a tidy job with us here?”

Bettie smoothed her hair, sure it was perfect. She smirked, and then fixed her face into a smile, standing up straighter. Her version of standing at attention for her drill sergeant.

“Until I can get more hours here, I need the money to pay rent,” she explained, wondering if she should have just kept her mouth shut. “I’m sorry, Ms. Covington. Did you need something from me?”

Her boss paused again and clicked something on her computer. She typed furiously again and then looked back up at Bettie. She shook her head a bit as if trying to remember what they were talking about.

“Yes, well, I have a task for you,” she said, ignoring Bettie’s comment about hours and pay. “I just got an urgent email. New client. We need background.” She clicked some more at the laptop and the printer whirred to life, spitting out pages. Diane flicked a hand toward the printer and Bettie rushed to get the paper as it finished printing. “Take the info, do your magic Internet and text thing you do, and check back in tonight.”

With that her boss began clicking and typing again, reaching for her cell phone to check a text. She flicked her hand to the door as she placed the phone to her ear, waiting for a call to connect. Bettie backed out of the doorway slowly, careful not to make any noise as the door closed. She glanced down at the pages and flipped through them, trying to figure out how to get more information out of her boss when she’d obviously dismissed her.

“Shit,” she whispered to herself as she scanned the pages. “Is this the client or the subject?” she wondered, glancing around to make sure no one caught her talking to herself. The receptionist was busy scrolling through reels on her phone and no one else was immediately around. Bettie sunk into her leather chair and booted up her laptop, opening her text app while she waited.

“Shay, what was that himbo’s name from the app earlier? You know the one,” she text to her friend. Getting impatient at the moving dots indicating Shay was actively writing back, she text again, “Before you say anything, I don’t give a shit about him personally but I think I just got a file on him for work. Brenton, right? Come on, girl, ASAP!”

The dots twinkled again before the text appeared. “Yeah, Brenton. Didn’t give a last name. Maybe it’s another Brenton?”

A few seconds later another text came through. “Is he the client or the mark?”

“I’ll let you know,” Bettie wrote back. “Do me a favor and block him on the app until I figure this out ok? I don’t want him finding me, especially if he ends up the mark.” Women often hired the PR company to scrub their lives of a man scorned, or to cover up something their boyfriend or husbands did. They’d put out press releases announcing a grand donation or new business milestone while quietly burying the bad guys in the dirt they’d find on them. Cheaters, and philanderers, all of them, Bettie thought.

She sifted through the pages again, seeing the Brenton fellow was indeed the subject of her research. The client was an elderly woman the firm had worked with for many years. She didn’t list the reason for research, so Bettie would have to see what she could find and ask her boss which way they wanted the info to skew.

“Are you the good guy or the bad guy?” she whispered to herself, catching her bad habit as she drew in her breath. She’d searched for Brenton Davis on the usual socials and didn’t find much. He seemed perfect from the image he’d created online. Just enough photos, always well lit, and nothing to make her question his integrity. No political rants. No posts from ex-girlfriends or boyfriends calling him out on bad behavior. He worked at a graphic design firm, an artsy young professional like the ones that frequent the coffee shop down the street.

She caught herself wondering if she’d ever seen the man before. Maybe she’d made him a latte or served him a scone. Surely she’d remember that face, and those arms, the way they fit in his tailored shirts.

It was definitely the guy from the dating app.

Shay hadn’t text her back. She must have gotten busy or spaced out. Bettie snapped a photo of her computer screen and sent it to her friend.

“Brenton. This guy, right? Please tell me you’ve deleted him.”

Dots. Nothing. Dots again. Nothing. Bettie had a bad feeling.

“Bettie, can you stop by the bookstore after work? You’re off at 5 right?”

Bettie instantly knew what her friend had done.

“Shay, you didn’t.”

Dots. Nothing. Dots.

Bettie screamed silently and looked at the clock. 4:30. She read through the files and added the notes her boss had lined out for her. There was so much she couldn’t find out online, but it surely was not acceptable to go on a date with a mark.

A couple minutes before 5:00, Bettie poked her head into her boss’s office, knocking lightly.

“Ms. Covington?” Diane nodded and motioned for her to approach the desk. “I am just wondering… how far do I go to get the information you asked for? Also, can I ask any specifics about why we’re looking into this particular person?”

Diane shook her head. “I just need you to gather the intel and pass it on. Now as for how far you are allowed to go…” she paused for a moment and steepled her hands. “Nothing illegal. Otherwise, do what you must. OK?” She raised an eyebrow and waited for Bettie to nod and tell her she understood. She worried her lip and told her boss goodbye. She apparently had a date with a potential jerk.

Bettie hoisted her bag over her shoulder and walked the opposite way as the café, toward her apartment. The bookstore was on the way home. She and Shay spent hours there on the weekends, lounging in the comfy leather chairs, working on their laptops in the café, buying books for each other when they had extra money, enjoying the feeling of book people surrounding them.

She thought about that as she pulled the door open, getting caught on the handle as she tried to walk through.

“Shit,” she said, struggling to free herself from the handles of her bag against the doorframe. The door opened wider, a strong arm reaching across her in assistance.

“Let me help,” the voice loomed, deep and soothing. As soon as Bettie was free she turned to thank her valiant helper and struggled to find words once she saw his face. She tried to form a sentence and all that came out was, “aaaaa” as she blushed, angry with herself. Shit, she thought. The first word he heard from her was “shit.”

Bettie composed herself and scoffed. After a deep breath, she stood taller and put out her hand.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m Bettie.”

He grasped her hand, and she tried not to notice how his handshake was firm but the hand was soft, and warm, wrapping around hers like a cozy blanket.

“Brenton,” he said. What a stupid name, she reminded herself. He motioned for her to go ahead and he followed as she walked through to the fiction section, to a large opening filled with chairs and a couch. She sat in a chair and he sat in one beside her. They looked around and then at each other, neither saying anything. Finally Bettie broke the silence.

“I don’t know what you’re expecting, but it was my friend who actually set this up,” she spurted out. “You’re probably a nice man, and I just want to be honest.”

Brenton nodded his head and regarded her. “I figured that out almost immediately,” he said with a smirk. “But that’s ok, I don’t expect anything. I just wanted to meet you.”

Ever the cynic, Bettie smirked back, and narrowed her eyes.

“Right,” she started. “So what are we doing here? Did I set this up or did you?” She rolled her eyes. He shrugged and told her it didn’t matter, and then asked what book she would most like to read next. She said she’d been eyeing the newest in a mystery series she loved. He asked another question, listening intently on her answer. After a few minutes she realized he was easy to talk to, and she was enjoying herself.

She found a way to pepper in some questions she’d had from her folder. She found out he was an only child, he’d lived in the city for 5 years, ever since he graduated from college with a graphic arts degree. He hadn’t been in a relationship in a while, though he’d dated a bit. He wasn’t in debt, he had his own apartment, and he exercised daily—lifting weights three times a week, jogging twice a week, and yoga on the off days. He’d never made any enemies; he’d gotten a concerned look on his face as he answered that one.

“What is your darkest secret?” she blurted, tired of trying to see bad in a man that was obviously just… good.

He laughed. “My WHAT? Bettie, this is the weirdest date I’ve ever been on, I have to admit.” He looked up like he was thinking hard about her question. After a moment he shrugged. “I guess I try to live without secrets, but I suppose I people are surprised to find out I’m insecure and completely an introvert. I spend my days drawing on a computer and communicating by email. This is the most I’ve made eye contact with a human in weeks.” He blushed. “Sorry, that was weird.”

She couldn’t help but soften toward him. “My job’s not so different,” she said. “I write press releases, dig up info for clients, and help plan parties. PR is weird; you’d think it is completely social, but I’m the one in the background barely speaking with anyone. It’s all text and email and the occasional screaming phone call when something goes wrong. I don’t think you’re weird at all. I just can’t figure out what’s wrong with you.” She raised a hand to her mouth, appalled she’d said that part out loud. She pressed her hand to her mouth stifling a giggle. Her blush was intense.

“You’re looking for something wrong with me?” he said, laughing, causing her to laugh too. “Thanks, that’s not making me anxious at all.” He was funny, too, she thought. She excused herself to go to the bathroom and quickly scribbled everything she knew into her notes. She scanned it using her phone and sent the document to her boss. She tried to wait for a response but had to head back out of the bathroom before rising suspicion.

“I think I need to go,” she told him, finding him loitering in the entryway. He handed her a wrapped book and told her he hoped to see him again. They exchanged numbers, said their goodbyes, and she waited for him to go before she tore open the wrapping. He’d bought her the mystery book she’d mentioned at the beginning of their date.

The text came in next, from Diane.

“He is perfect for the young professionals award! Please write a bio using what you found so they can read it at the ceremony. Tonight if possible. I’ll pay double.”

Another text, from Brenton. “I just found out I won an award and I’m nervous and excited and starving. If you haven’t gotten too far, would you have dinner with me to celebrate?”

The end

February 10, 2024 01:17

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Kemz F
21:19 Feb 23, 2024

Hi! I thought this story was very sweet! The relationship at the beginning between Shay and Betty reminded me of relationships I've had with my own friends. Brenton seems like such a nice guy. I enjoyed reading your story and hope to see some more of your writing!


Shannon Ambroson
16:28 Feb 24, 2024

Thank you so much!


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Morgan Aloia
00:36 Feb 22, 2024

Hey hi! We got matched for the critique circle. I’ll share my first impressions, but please let me know if there’s anything I can help to clarify or if you’re looking for feedback on any specific points. I enjoyed moving through the arc overall, you lend some good detail to give a window into the way that Bettie moves through the world that lead to her point of view. The dialogue feels very declarative, which lends to an interesting style but can leave the characters feeling a little bit overly direct. Especially given how well you establi...


Shannon Ambroson
21:03 Feb 22, 2024

Thank you for reading, and for leaving feedback! :)


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Rabab Zaidi
14:12 Feb 17, 2024

Very nice!


Shannon Ambroson
16:02 Feb 17, 2024

Thank you so much!


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