IT WAS OFFICIAL.
She was on the date from hell.
Kate Seymour reached for her wine, forced a bright smile, and tried very hard not to stare at the lump of cheese hanging from her companion’s chin. Okay, so he was a bit socially awkward. Still didn’t make it right not to notice chicken parm was stuck on his face.
She patted her chin in a silent plea for him to grab his napkin. Signals were the universal gesture women used when toilet paper was stuck to their shoe or a price tag was hanging from their skirt, but this guy hadn’t gotten the memo.
He kept talking about his marketing business, which was kind of interesting, but how could she focus when she stared at a lump of mozzarella?
“Umm, Bradley? You’ve got something, umm, r-r-r-right there on your—”
He swiped at it bare-handed like a bear grabbing a fish, and the cheese fell onto the plate. “Thanks. So, I’m really glad we finally got to do this in person. I enjoyed talking with you over the phone.”
Suddenly not hungry anymore, Kate pushed the last of her salmon around the plate and nodded. “Me, too. Being a business owner, I’m always fascinated by PR and the best ways to brand. What type of s-s-s-services do you offer at your company?”
Stupid stutter. It always slipped out when she was nervous about making a good impression. Not that her date seemed to care about her thoughtful question. In fact, he seemed more interested in the busboy, giving him a bright smile and respectful silence when he swooped in to clean up the mess at the table.
Bradley plowed through the spaghetti and sucked the loopy strands through his teeth with a hiss. When he finally managed to swallow, he looked up. An odd expression crossed his face. “Well, I’m not exactly employed in that department. I will be soon, though, and I know more than most of the employees.”
Huh. He’d insinuated that he ran an entire department. Odd. “Your title is social relations, right? What department is that?”
Kate blinked. “Oh. Wow, I bet you meet a lot of interesting people.”
Sauce stained his lips. She kept her gaze focused slightly to the left.
“Yes, I figured I’d start off with an entry-level position and make my way up the ladder.”
This could still work. She admired ambition in a man. Sure, he had kind of stretched the truth about his job, but maybe he was embarrassed to tell her over the phone. Not that she judged: Kate couldn’t care less what title a man bore as long as he liked his work. Even his looks weren’t bad, more the average Joe, which she courted. Short dark hair, brown eyes, round face. A bit overweight but nothing out of the ordinary in a world filled with fast food and instant gratification. Kate despised the charming, good-looking types who looked at women only as a way to serve their egos.
“Smart. You went to NYU, right?” she asked. “I graduated from there, too, in business management. What did you study?”
“I took a class there once. Didn’t get to finish, since I had to go take care of my mom.”
Instant sympathy and hope flickered. A man who respected family was key to a good match. “I’m sorry, is she ill?”
Crumbs of Italian bread clung to the edge of his mouth. Yes, eating with him would be a chore, but a man who helped his mother must have a heart of gold. “She’s got arthritis. Told her I’d move in and help her out.”
Why did there seem to be more to the story? “Does she have trouble moving around? I’ve heard of severe conditions that can be very painful.”
Bradley paused to slurp his water, which added to the entire meal he now wore on his face. “Her fingers hurt sometimes, so I can help her open jars and stuff. I keep her company, and she cooks and cleans for me. It works out pretty well.”
The Titanic had nothing on this date, but she fought off the iceberg like a woman clinging to survival. Kate desperately needed Bradley to be the one. One hundred was a lucky number, wasn’t it? One hundred dates spoke of patience. She’d waited, invested her time wisely, and believed in the process. As the successful owner of Kinnections matchmaking agency, she lived and breathed her business. She believed, dammit. And it was getting a little weird for the owner to still be single with no prospect in sight.
She flexed her fingers and fought the impulse to touch him. If there was even a slight tingle of connection, she’d deal with the job and his mother. Her gift of sensing strong energy between two people meant to be together was also a curse. How many times had she gotten an electrical shock from a couple who were soul mates? How many men had she surrendered to other women because she realized her date belonged with the waitress or customer service representative or store clerk? It served her well as a matchmaker but was pure hell on her personal life. The touch ran through the generations of women in her family, but none had decided to use it for business. Still, she preferred using science and skill to make her matches in Kinnections, and tried hard not to let the touch interfere with her main business plan. It was more of a way to confirm they had made the right match once a couple got serious. Not that she was ready to tell Bradley or anyone else about her secret weapon.
She studied him from across the table and refused to lose hope. Bradley was meant to be hers, but she wasn’t ready to put her hands on him to confirm.
The waitress glided over and placed the check discreetly in the middle of the table. Kate held her breath, knowing this was the ultimate test. A man who paid for dinner on the first date had values. It was a make-or-break moment. Anticipation cut through her, and she held her breath.
Bradley reached over and grabbed the bill.
Giddiness spilled through her. Finally. She hadn’t been wrong. Sure, rough patches needed to be worked out, but Kate believed.
Bradley scanned the bill and whipped out a pocket calculator. Heart sinking, she watched his fingers fly across the keys. “Okay, since it’s not even, I’ll take the higher portion. You owe $43.00 even and I’ll pay $44.63. That’s with a fifteen percent tip. Is that acceptable?”
Kate stared as her dream of a soul mate withered as fast as the Wicked Witch’s body, but she didn’t get any cool ruby shoes left in the process. “Sure.”
“Great. Cash or credit?”
She reached into her Coach purse and pulled out her VISA. “Here you go.”
The busboy stopped at their table. “Are you done, sir? Miss?”