I wiped my palms over my denim-clad thighs, anxiety growing and surprising me with its intensity. I hated to admit that I was sweating this meeting, but I was.
“So, what made you want to hire a matchmaker, Nate Collins?” Geneva Malone, CEO of Malone Matchmakers folded her hands on top of her large mahogany desk and leaned forward, one perfectly shaped eyebrow inquisitively arched.
My entire body heated, Geneva’s penetrating gaze like a laser beam searing right through me. I hadn’t felt as on the spot since standing on stage during the second grade spelling bee. I’d misspelled strength. Those silent letters got me every time.
I wondered now why I had let my sister talk me into this.
“It’s time my younger bro.”
“By five minutes,” I’d mumbled.
Like the know-it-all “older” sibling she was, Nat had laughed, slapped me on the back and asked, “What else are you going to spend your fortune on?”
I could think of a few things and none of them included me paying through the nose for a hook-up. Although Nat had insisted hiring a matchmaking service was way more advanced and reliable than swiping right. She agreed that yes, if I wanted a hook-up then just keep swiping. But if I was serious about wanting to settle down—and let’s face it, I was—then Malone Matchmakers was the service for me. They had helped Nat find her fiancé after all and I had to admit, Michael and my sister were one of the most happy, stable couples I’d ever seen.
Nat assured me she wasn’t steering me toward this particular company because her friend was the head of it, but because Malone Matchmakers was the best.
Her testimonial was encouraging, but unnecessary. I knew Nat would never recommend something that she didn’t sincerely believe in or that she didn’t think was good for me.
“But if you want to continue letting Mom set you up on her infamous blind dates, who am I to argue?” At this, my twin had shrugged her shoulders, her ultimate mic-drop tactic.
She knew me too well, knew that I couldn’t resist a challenge and that she had piqued my interest and curiosity about her friend’s business.
“That’s a loaded question,” I said to Geneva now.
“Only the first of many.”
I took a deep breathe, growing even warmer, as if I had stuck my head in an oven. Why was I suddenly feeling like a middle aged woman in the throes of menopause?
I didn’t like not being in control or out of my comfort zone and in this arena, Geneva Malone was the one in charge, not me.
My area of expertise remained technology. I was the behind-the-scenes talent of the company I co-owned with my college friend. My partner was the front man, handling all the publicity and public appearances, a master at glad-handing and pressing the flesh. Dealing with people was not my forte, never had been, which, as my sister put it, was part of my problem. I needed to get out of my comfort zone to meet the woman of my dreams.
“You seem a little nervous,” Geneva said.
She chuckled, the smoky sound shooting straight to my groin and making me hard.
I didn’t remember being this turned on by her voice over the phone, but then I hadn’t been confronted with the astuteness and depth of her dark gaze or the idea that she seemed to have the ability strip me bare with her eyes.
“I promise you, the process is not as unpleasant as you might think. And if you’re really committed and follow the steps, the end result will be highly rewarding.”
I didn’t know about the not as unpleasant part, but I liked Geneva’s confidence and that went a long way to engender my trust and respect. I could see why she and Nat were friends and why Malone Matchmakers was so successful; with such a determined, passionate and strong black woman at the company’s helm, I didn’t wonder why.
As bold and fearless as I was in my own business, it had taken me digging deep for the courage to sign up with Malone Matchmakers. I still wasn’t sure it had been the best idea except sitting across from the CEO made me wonder if my search was definitively over and I was already looking at my match.
For someone who’d made a fortune in the tech sector counting on cool logic and keen insight, flights of fancy and romanticism were not ideals I abided. In fact, I frowned on both at every turn. Hence my need for Malone’s services.
The fact that Geneva Malone was my sister’s best friend should have made me more comfortable than I was, but it didn’t. I’d never met her, after all, miracle of miracles, so had no framework with which to judge her except as an accomplished entrepreneur who specialized in matching people with their ideal mates.
Geneva sat back in her chair and flipped through the portfolio on her desk, expression intent as the silence in the room—except for intermittent page flipping—grew until I thought I would burst from sitting still for so long. I didn’t like being idle for any length of time, felt like I might miss an opportunity if I wasn’t always on, something that could have been construed as a character flaw, except it had gotten me where I was today.
Watching Geneva, however—drinking in her exotic, caramel-complexioned splendor like a thirsty plant soaking up the sun—was more energizing to me than my usual morning jogs or a hard-earned breakthrough in the lab.
Had coming here already turned my brain into idealistic mush?
Probably wasn’t such a good idea falling for someone at first sight, especially not one’s matchmaker…and my sister’s best friend.
“Why don’t we start with the tough questions and move from there.”
I nodded, wondering what could have been tougher than the required written interview I’d completed before this in-person appointment.
I certainly couldn’t fault Malone Matchmakers for not being thorough, but I had thought the initial interview questions incredibly intrusive and uncomfortable. Not to mention, Geneva had to be aware of at least some of my background since she and Nat had more than likely shared personal family information over the years.
“I know you’re thinking this process is repetitive, but trust me, it’s necessary. You’ll reveal more during our in-person interview even if I ask you the same questions you’ve already answered on paper. Getting information from the horse’s mouth and your body language and mannerisms count for a lot.”
That’s what I was afraid of.
Would she uncover how attracted to her I was and that I was a besotted fool for falling so fast? Was there room for, or did she believe in love at first sight in her business? Or was the concept and the thoroughness of the matchmaking process mutually exclusive?
I emerged from my brain fog to the sound of Geneva’s sultry voice and the sight of her staring at me with her striking dark-brown gaze. “I’m sorry?”
“I asked, what’s your relationship with your father?”
I didn’t have a relationship with my father. And wow, didn’t she just jump in feet first! I didn’t remember that question being on the written interview. It might have scared me away, despite Nat’s endorsement of the process.
I didn’t want to be confrontational but mention of my and Nat’s dear old sperm donor tended to put me in a bad place. A place where frustrating memories of our mother working her fingers to the bone at multiple jobs to put food on the table and keep a roof over all our heads abounded. I didn’t like going back there; it was one of the main reasons I’d never wanted to see a psychotherapist. I didn’t need to pay a professional to tell me what I already knew, except wasn’t that what I was doing here at Malone’s? Paying a professional to help me do something I had so far failed to do on my own?
The only positive thing about my father’s disappearing act remained the motivation it had provided me to excel at school and business. I’d never wanted to be a drain on society, fail the ones I loved or leave them in the lurch the way my father had left me, Nat and Mom. I never wanted anyone crying their eyes out or their heart aching over my abandonment the way my mother wept and ached over my father. That had to be the cruelest thing one could do to someone, just leave without a trace or a reason.
Geneva stared, patiently waiting for me to vocalize the painful realities of my childhood growing up with a single mother in a stereotypically fatherless household.
“Can we move on to another question?”
“Procrastination only puts off the inevitable.”
“Is that a personal or business motto?”
Looks like she might have just answered my unspoken question about love at first sight.
* * *
Concentrating on Nate’s responses once I had finally gotten him to open up about himself was far more difficult than I had thought it would be.
I’d never had an issue before. Attractive, even exceptionally gorgeous male clients came a dime a dozen in my profession. Of course, none of them had walked through my door shortly after I’d completed my own profile on the recommendation of one Natalie Collins, my best and most trusted friend since college. And none of said men had come up as my perfect match before. The yin to my yang, his every facet complementing mine.
The deeper we went into the interview and the more questions to which Nate responded—background, values, relationship goals, what country he felt personified him, even down to the amount of kids he wanted to have—the more I realized Nat had all the makings of a world-class matchmaker and that I needed to hire her forthwith.
Before Nate’s arrival I hadn’t believed in love at first sight as I had, surprisingly, never experienced it. I said surprisingly because I considered myself a passionate woman open to all possibilities where love and romance were concerned, yet I’d never experienced the sort of connection with any of my past lovers or boyfriends as I had in my one-on-one with Nate.
For all of the above reasons, I probably should have stopped the interview as soon as it became clear that all of Nate’s responses made him a match for the CEO of Malone Matchmakers.
I stood with my cellphone in hand and circled my desk. “Would you excuse me for a moment? I have to take this.” I watched as Nate’s thick brows drew together in a frown and I broke every rule in the book when I squeezed his shoulder on my way out of the office. I didn’t know whether the squeeze had been to soothe him or me, except the look of confusion in his wide gray eyes made my heart stutter with sympathy.
I would have drowned in his gaze had I stood staring into it a moment longer. Except for his gender, he was the spitting image of my friend—same dark-chocolate skin, which accentuated the magnetism of their light eyes—same finely-sculpted features.
Nate Collins was like a piece of living art. The memory of his beauty stamped on my brain and the spicy scent of his cologne lingered in my nostrils as I closed the door behind me and leaned against the expensive heavy wood. I preferred the privacy afforded by an old-fashioned wooden door over the more popular glassed-in offices.
I took several deep breaths before scrolling through my Contacts and dialing Nat.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“You didn’t tell me,” I accused.
“Tell you what?”
“That you were hooking me up with your brother.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Don’t give me that innocent tone,” I said, shivers running up my spine at my friend’s laughter. “You knew exactly what you were doing when you suggested I fill out a profile.”
“I thought since you had hooked me up with the love of my life, I could return the favor. So, have you?
“I didn’t personally hook you up. My company—”
“Semantics. So have you?”
“Have I what?”
“Have you found your match?”
“As if you don’t know.”
“I wasn’t a hundred percent certain, but I had a hunch.”
I knew better than anyone how important hunches were in this business; following mine had made me the success I was today and had helped me match hundreds of couples in the seven years my company had been in business.
I’d wanted to help individuals find love and more of a happily ever after than my mother had experienced, more of a happily ever after than Natalie and Nate’s mother had experienced. This desire had served me well when it came to bringing together other couples, but seemed to get in the way when it came to finding a match for me.
Maybe it was time I focused on my own happily ever after.
“What am I supposed to do now? I can’t continue our interview. I’ll have to pass him off to someone else.” I could imagine how Nate would take that. I’d only just gotten him to trust me, practically made him open his veins. He’d take my passing him off to one of my associates, no matter how skilled and intuitive they were, as a dismissal and he’d have every right to be insulted and bewildered.
“You know you would have met him at my wedding anyway,” Nat said.
“Would I have though?” It sounded cold and judgmental when I said it out loud like that, but Nat’s brother had been a notorious no-show for all sorts of family events to which I had managed to make. So much so, I’d begun to wonder if his absences had been deliberate.
Had he thought his sister or mother was trying to hook him up even then? Had he not been ready? Was he ready now?
“You would have,” Nat stated. “It’s not like I get married every day.”
True and Nat’s sounding so certain put my mind at ease.
She had never seemed to have an issue with Nate not making it to every birthday or other events, always defending his workaholism because, she’d said, when she got right down to the nitty-gritty, she knew she could count on her brother and her brother knew he could count on her.
I admired their bond and relationship. Growing up alone with my single mother made my father’s absence ten times worse. I hadn’t had a sibling to lean on or confide in, which made my friendship with Nat special, a friendship I didn’t want to mess up mixing business with personal. But hadn’t I already done that, helping Nat and Michael?
At least I understood why Natalie and her mother had always been so accepting of Nate’s nonappearances.
Was he finally ready to focus less on his job, however, settle down and be present for a family of his own? Could he and I make a go of it despite our pasts and emotional baggage?
I had matched up individuals with far more issues than mine and Nate’s and there was only one way to find out if he and I had what it took to make a relationship work. “Thanks for listening, Nat. I’ve got a match to make.”
“Go get him, girl!”
I couldn’t just barge in and declare us a match. I had to be transparent with Nate though, full disclosure, and move from there.
I took another deep breath, feeling like the tables had turned since I’d left the office to call Natalie, but this was okay. Despite my well-earned reputation as a ball-buster who ran a tight ship, I didn’t have a problem showing vulnerability, especially with a partner. Key word, partner, someone with whom to give and take. It would devastate me if I put myself out there for the first time in years only to be rejected, but if I didn’t try, I’d never know if Nate was right for me—if we were right for each other.
“Everything okay?” Nate asked as soon as I retook my seat across from him.
Was I that obviously unsettled or was he that attuned to my mood?
I’ll take the latter for $200, Alex.
“It depends on how you take what I’m about to tell you.”
“I’m your match,” I blurted.
“Did my sister put you up to this?”
I laughed. “It seems our dear Natalie has been busy moonlighting as matchmaker.”
“A dangerous activity in the wrong hands.” Nate grinned.
“I agree.” I searched his face for any hint of his thoughts besides the evident amusement.
“How do you feel about her horning in on your territory?”
“To tell you the truth, I was initially perturbed when I found out what she’d done.”
“I’m thankful. And you?”
“After you’d left the office I’d told myself to be bold, come out with how I was feeling about you and make a proposal.”
“Indecent I hope.”
“Depends.” Nate leaned forward in his chair, face serious as if he was about to deliver a blow. “How averse would you be to dating a client?”
“Not at all if he was my match.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.” Nate reached across the desk and took my hand in his, an innocent but sensual move that made my heart flutter. “Nice to finally meet you after all these years, Geneva Malone.”
“Nice to finally meet you, Nate Collins. I’ve heard almost nothing about you.”
Nate chuckled and the deep sound reverberated through me as if I was a tuning fork. “I guess you realize, you’re officially fired,” he murmured.
I’d never welcomed losing a client more.