Rosie glanced down at her buzzing phone.
Her initial reaction—what the hell?!—was followed by panic. Something had to be wrong for Jo to call. Texting was one thing—it had been grandfathered into their friendship—but talking? With their voices?
Rosie had been exchanging paper letters with her best friend Jo since Jo’s family moved away when both girls were twelve. Since then, they had religiously exchanged a letter per week. A letter. Written by hand. On paper. As they grew up and long-distance telephone calls became less of a big deal, Rosie stubbornly clung to the idea of a weekly handwritten letter—you didn’t just abandon a tradition that had been going strong for fifteen years—though they also emailed and texted pretty much daily.
But calling? Jo knew Rosie hated the phone. The last time they’d spoken on the phone was two years ago when Rosie’s dad died. Heck, they saw each other in person for visits more than they called each other.
“Hello?” Rosie was breathless. The way her stomach fluttered, it might as well have been tonight’s Match.com date. Rosie had high hopes that the guy, who was presenting extremely well via text, would turn out to be “the one.”
“I think you made a mistake,” said Jo, “with your last letter?”
Rosie wanted to say, “Huh?” but Jo was talking so fast she couldn’t squeeze it in.
“I thought if I called you might still have time to fix it don’t yell at me I know you hate talking on the phone I’m going to read it and then hang up and it will be like this never happened.”
“Uh, okay?” was all she could think to say in response to that epic run-on sentence.
“Dear Mr. Rosemann—”
Rosemann. As in Marcus Rosemann. As in millionaire Marcus Rosemann, to whom she had just sent a thank-you letter for his sizeable donation to EcoHabitat Toronto, the nonprofit for which Rosie worked.
“Thank you for your generous gift in support of…”
Oh, no. No, no, no, no.
Rosie dropped the phone as adrenaline surged through her limbs, making them shake. When she picked it up, Jo was still talking.
“It’s donors like you, whose regular commitments we have come to rely on, who will truly help us realize our goal: a city in which humans and animals—and their habitats—can coexist peacefully.”
Sending the donor thank-you letter to Jo, and the gossipy, nattering note intended for her best friend to Marcus Rosemann wasn’t just a mistake, to use Jo’s term, it was a fireable offense. As the charity’s fundraising manager, she was the last person who should be making such a careless error. “Shit, shit, shitballs!”
“Sweetie, calm down. You do everything at that place. You’re allowed to make one mistake,” Jo said.
“Who’s lined up as tonight’s Mr. Thursday Night?”
Every Thursday night, Rosie went on a date with a guy from one of the many dating sites she used, and Jo had adopted Rosie’s practice of referring to each of her suitors as “Mr. Thursday Night.” Rosie appreciated that Jo was trying to change the subject, to return her attention to something mundane and routine, but she had to fix this letter mix-up. She had to fix it now. “Jo. I love you, but I gotta go.”
I’m a day late writing this. I thought about forging the date, but I knew you would KNOW somehow, so I’m just going to come clean. I’m a day late. So shoot me. I was busy this weekend.
With what, you might ask? Was I busy with the latest Mr. Thursday Night, one Mr. Mark Larson, second grade teacher?
Yes, but not in the way you might think.
But, oh, my dashed hopes! Wah! He taught seven-year-olds! He was kind and gentle! He did not have (as far as I could tell) a secret wife/child/family/cocaine habit/sex addiction/storage locker full of vintage typewriters. (He did, however, have an unfortunately untidy—bordering on gross—beard in this whole “I look like a logger but I’ve never even been camping” way that seems to be all the thing. But a girl can’t have everything. A girl becomes suspicious, in fact, when presented with everything. So I was good with the beard. Mostly.)
The problem was not the beard. It was that in addition to teaching seven-year-olds, he had the alcohol tolerance of one. Which would not have been a problem if he had owned up to this, and we could have adjusted our consumption accordingly. But three tequila shots later, he was barfing in my lap. On that new dress I texted you a pic of.
So when I got home, all I could do was make a cup of tea and take a shower. I was not in letter-writing mode. And here I thought I might finally make a Mr. Thursday Night into a Mr. Friday Morning. No. A thousand times no. Maybe I should start listening to my mother.
But! Once more unto the breach, dear friend! If I want to find a boyfriend, I’ve got to get back onto the horse, right? I have a couple options for this Thursday and am leaning toward TallDoctor83, with whom I’ve exchanged a few messages. Who doesn’t want a tall doctor, right? If I had pink eye, he wouldn’t even have to stoop to examine me. (Har! Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here all week.)
And what about you? The hubs is still adoring you, no doubt? (As he should!) And Toby? Is he conjugating French verbs yet? Or still only just rolling over? The last pic you sent was so ridiculously cute it made my teeth hurt, and if I didn’t love you so much, I would hate you.
What the? Marcus turned the letter over, as if the back of the pink floral stationery would yield some clue as to the prank someone was obviously playing on him. Nothing. He grabbed the crisp ivory envelope it had come in. Yes, all was in order here. The return address was EcoHabitat Toronto, the ecosystem conservation charity he’d been financially supporting since his mother died nearly a year ago.
But instead of the usual canned thank-you letter from whichever wizened gray-haired society matron was currently chair of the board, he had this…pink thing.
There was a tap at the door, two soft raps he recognized as his assistant. “What is it?” he asked when she popped her head in, murmuring apologies. Carla never came in when he’d blocked off work time.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, looking close to tears, which was highly unusual for the take-no-prisoners admin assistant.
“Your father’s on the phone. I know you said no calls from him, but I—”
He knew immediately what she wasn’t saying. The thought that his father had been bullying his capable and loyal assistant shoved him right into that familiar groove, the one lined with four decades of resentment.
“Put him through.”
“I tried telling him—”
“Put him through.”
Carla nodded and backed out of the room. A moment later, his phone buzzed. He picked it up. “What?”
“Are you bringing a date Saturday?”
Here we go. “I told the aunts I don’t know yet.”
“It’s forty-eight hours away, Marcus.”
“And why have you taken such an interest all of a sudden? The Fall Ball was Mom’s thing.” And we all know how much you cared about her.
“All eyes will be on our family,” his father lectured. “Especially this year, with your mother…gone.”
Marcus snapped a pencil in half.
“Don’t you think it’s time you settled down?” his father went on.
Marcus heard everything his father didn’t say. Come back to the firm. Get married to someone I approve of, and have two-point-three kids. Conform.
It would be easy enough to find a date. Any of the women he saw casually would be delighted to accompany him to the social event of the season. “I’ll bring someone,” he snapped, and hung up. But the moment he did so, he regretted his easy capitulation. He scrolled through the contact list on his phone. All of these women were…perfectly suitable. Most of them were wealthy and ran in the same circles as his family. All had impeccable manners and social instincts. His father would be pleased to see any of them on his arm on Saturday.
He returned his attention to the absurd letter from EcoHabitat Toronto, staring at it as if it were a life preserver keeping him tethered to his sanity.
The ink was green, for God’s sake.
It wasn’t like he objectively gave a shit about EcoHabitat. But his mother had. So it irritated the hell out of him that this “xoRosie” person was sloppy enough to mix up her letters, which was what he assumed had happened. Marcus had no tolerance for carelessness. It signified a lack of discipline. Wasted potential.
He had half a mind to march over to EcoHabitat’s office and give xoRosie a piece of his mind. Or maybe xoRosie’s boss. The only thing stopping him was the thought that that was something his father would do.
He pulled up the charity’s website, which was a complete mess—not at all intuitive, difficult to navigate. Perhaps instead of money, he should offer his company’s services pro bono to straighten it out. A professional ad agency could do a lot for EcoHabitat.
Eventually, he managed to land on a page labeled, “The team.”
Ah—there she was. Rose Verma, fundraising manager. He cocked his head, squinting at the overexposed headshot next to her bio. In addition to a better website, EcoHabitat also needed a better photographer. But even so, it was easy to tell that she was a beauty. Long black hair, a killer smile. She looked a little like that TV star that Lauren, his executive creative director, was obsessed with. Mindy Something.
So she was sloppy, undisciplined, and beautiful.
He picked up the shards of the pencil his father had caused him to destroy, and an absurd idea took hold. An evil-genius idea.
Why the hell not?
Yes, the train wreck known as Rose Verma would do quite nicely.
“All right, if that doesn’t dazzle TallDoctor83, he should change his handle to TallBlindDoctor83,” Hailey declared, capping the lipstick she’d just applied to Rosie’s lips. EcoHabitat’s receptionist moonlighted as a makeup artist, and she always insisted on doing Rosie’s face for her Thursday night dates. Sometimes the looks were a little extreme—with her goth style, Hailey herself looked like a cross between a MAC saleswoman and the Corpse Bride—but the result of her makeup applications was always better than anything Rosie would have been able to achieve on her own.
Since Rosie was meeting TallDoctor for drinks at the upscale Thompson Hotel, she’d asked Hailey to give her a classic smoky eye. Her personal makeup artist had added a matte magenta lip. Rosie eyed her reflection in the hand mirror Hailey held. She looked good. Sometimes, when she saw herself like this, dressed up and made up, she thought back to her lonely, miserable middle school years. After Jo had moved away, she’d had plenty of alone time to fantasize about what life would be like when she escaped the white-bread suburb her family lived in, where she stuck out like a sore thumb. Back then, she’d imagined herself an independent career woman living in the big city, getting ready to go on a date. And look at her now. “I would never have known to try a color like that,” she said of the lipstick. “How do you do that?”
Hailey winked as she packed up her cosmetics bag. “It’s a gift.”
Rosie gave herself a final once-over. If only she weren’t so damn tall. “Well, if he’s into Indian giantesses, he will definitely be dazzled.”
“Who isn’t into Indian giantesses?” Hailey deadpanned.
“Um, the last Mr. Thursday Night, and the one before that, and the one before that.” So maybe she wasn’t so far from the gangly, awkward teenager who didn’t fit in. Because although she went on plenty of first dates these days, second dates—not so much.
“I don’t know if you can really say that about the last one. If he hadn’t barfed on you, who knows where things would have gone?”
It was true. To be fair, Rosie was—outwardly, anyway—not the awkward ugly duckling anymore. She rejected men more than they rejected her. She was on Mission: Boyfriend, but she wasn’t going to settle for just anyone. She was looking for a life partner, after all. A father to her future children.
She was looking for love. So she had high hopes for TallDoctor.
She always did.
“You going home first? Want to walk to the subway with me?” Hailey asked.
She shook her head. “Nope. I’m not boarding any critters at the moment, so there’s no need to make a pit stop. I have tons to do here, anyway. Mr. Carroll wants—”
“Ah, ah, ah!” Hailey showed Rosie her palm. Then she looked at her watch. “It is 6:27. I’ve been off the clock for fifty-seven minutes, and I won’t tolerate any talk about Mr. Carroll. The fact that Mr. Carroll is in charge around here and not you is a crime against humanity.”
Rosie grinned. EcoHabitat’s executive director was universally disliked by his staff. He was basically an incompetent, mansplaining ass, so it was easy to see why. Rosie sometimes felt bad for him, though. It must be difficult to go through life so completely clueless yet with responsibility for important things like, oh, say, the well-being of entire ecosystems. But Hailey, who was young and still undisappointed by life, had no tolerance for human failings of any kind. Still, Rosie appreciated the show of loyalty. She pretty much did everything that was in her job description and half of what was in her boss’s. In her more ambitious moments, she fantasized about deposing him somehow. Mr. Carroll’s ineptitude got in the way of so many of their projects.
“Hit the lights, will you?” Rosie said as her friend waved good-bye. “I’ll leave out the back when I’m ready.”
The lights in the hallway flicked off one by one, and Rosie heard the thunk of the heavy door at the top of the stairwell. Her office was located on the third floor of the converted Victorian that housed EcoHabitat. It had been left to them by a wealthy benefactor three years ago. Though it had allowed them to move out of the cramped, expensive space they had been renting in a nearby office building, the place was still a little rough around the edges. They’d been plowing what they used to pay in rent into renovations, but having started from the ground level and worked their way up, they hadn’t made it to the third floor yet.
In truth, Rosie kind of liked the creaky old bedroom that functioned as her office. The slanting attic walls still papered in a Laura-Ashley-style pattern from the 1980s and the uneven wood floors had a lot more charm than her cubicle at the old place.
She shrieked and reared back, which caused her chair to roll backward toward the door, and, given the slope of the floor, she just kept rolling. There was nothing to grab. She glided ingloriously to a stop at the feet of the visitor.
The ridiculously hot visitor.
He had blue eyes with laugh lines around them and thick, premature salt-and-pepper hair. With his gray, exquisitely tailored suit, he looked like a corporate lawyer, or a banker.
“I’m Marcus Rosemann.”
Or, you know, the head of an ad agency and one of EcoHabitat’s most important donors.
Another shriek. The reaction was involuntary. She rolled back to her desk and literally banged her head against it a few times. Why not? It wasn’t possible to humiliate herself with this man any more than she already had. Head still resting on the desk, not caring that her speech was muffled by her arms, she said, “Please tell me you got the second letter.” The letter she’d FedExed, explaining the mishap and assuring him that the lapse had nothing whatsoever to do with the general standards of professionalism and decorum observed by the organization.
“Mr. Rosemann, so nice to meet you,” he said, his voice oddly devoid of inflection. She lifted her head from its hiding place and narrowed her eyes. Was he mocking her? “Your mother was such a devoted advocate of this fine organization. I’m delighted to finally meet her son.”
She sat all the way up. “How did you get in here?”
“How can I help you, Mr. Rosemann?” He held up the letter. She’d known he had it, but, oh God, seeing it there, the flowery stationery clasped in his big hands—it was too embarrassing. “Especially given the recent mix-up with our correspondence. How will I make it up to you?”
Geez. Was he really so mean that he would come here and throw an innocent mistake back in her face? “Because the receptionist left before you got here, so I’m not really sure how you got in.” Her instincts told her that she, if not her pride, was perfectly safe, but the rational part of her brain was starting to realize that she was alone in the building with this angry stranger who was holding in his hands not only her letter, but the fate of her continued employment at EcoHabitat. Because all he would have to do is call Mr. Carroll, and that would be it for Rose Verma, fundraising manager.
“If by receptionist, you are referring to the heavily pierced woman with the fauxhawk, she let me in on her way out. She told me that even though it was obvious I was lying about ‘the 1983 thing,’ at least I was actually tall.”
“Oh, she thinks you’re TallDoctor83!” Yeah, Marcus Rosemann looked like he had a few too many years on him to be born in 1983. If she had to guess, she’d peg him as late thirties. But he was certainly tall—she could see why Hailey had made the mistake. She had a feeling if she stood up, he’d still have a good few inches on her. That hardly ever happened.
She stood. Yup. She still had to tilt her head back a little to give him a look.
He took a step forward and waved the letter back and forth. “Do you want me to examine you for pink eye?”
In another context, the question could have been a joke. Rose had a lot of experience recognizing jerks, though, and the deadpan delivery and the slight curling of his lip made it clear that Marcus wasn’t kidding. And that he was a jerk.
But he was an epically handsome jerk—wasn’t that always the way? She looked closer at him. His eyes weren’t straight up blue. They had a tinge of gray. And his five o’clock shadow, like his hair, was streaked with silver. Dear God, she had a weakness for scruff on a man.
He looked right back, one eyebrow raised.
Still a jerk, though. These rich philanthropists often were—they were the grown-up versions of captain of the football team, or the head cheerleader.
It was just that rich philanthropists weren’t usually so…delicious. Her cheeks started to heat. So she capitulated, ceding the weird staring contest she seemed to be having with Marcus Rosemann.
Marcus Rosemann! What was the matter with her? The fate of her job hung in the balance here, and that was more important than any amount of personal mortification and/or attraction she might be experiencing.
So she took a step back—and a deep breath. “Mr. Rosemann, so nice to meet you. Your mother was such a devoted advocate of this fine organization. I’m delighted to finally meet her son.” He lifted his eyebrows when he realized she was parroting his earlier words exactly. She kept going. “How can I help you, Mr. Rosemann? Especially given the recent mix-up with our correspondence? How will I make it up to you?”
“You’ll come with me to the Fall Ball Saturday night.”
Whaaaat? The sense that she was maybe getting this slow-motion train wreck under control evaporated. “Excuse me?”
“It’s a charity ball my family organizes,” he said, as if this explained everything.
“I know what it is.” EcoHabitat had been the beneficiary one year. They’d raked in more than their usual annual fundraising take on that one night.
“It’s going to benefit breast cancer this year. My mother died of it ten months ago.”
She knew that too, but the way he stated it so matter-of-factly took her aback. Rebecca Rosemann had been a big supporter of EcoHabitat and had served on its board until she became too sick to continue. “I was so sorry to hear about her passing. We all were.”
“So you’ll come.” It wasn’t a question.
“You just met me!” Was this guy on crack?
He held up the letter. “And yet I feel I know you so well.”
“I am sorry about that.” She made a face. “Mortified, actually.”
He stepped inside the small office, filling it with his commanding presence, let the letter flutter down to her desk, and looked between it and her, a question in his eyes.
“You just met me,” she said again, as if saying it enough times would make him see how ridiculous he was being.
“Is that idiot Tony Carroll still in charge around here? He and my mother go way back. I’m sure he’d be very interested to learn how careful his employees are with correspondence to EcoHabitat’s major donors.”
Her mouth fell open. “Are you blackmailing me?”
The crinkles around his eyes deepened as he pressed his lips together. It looked like he was trying not to smile. “I believe I am.”
As she stood there with her bright pink mouth hanging open, Marcus almost started laughing. But that would have ruined the menacing vibe he was going for. Rose Verma was the perfect date for the Fall Ball—the perfectly imperfect date to rile his father—and he had to have her. He pulled out his phone. “Give me your contact info. I’ll pick you up at six on Saturday.”
As he watched her eyes narrow, he fancied for a moment that he could see the gears turning in her head. “We have a new campaign that just launched this week. We’re trying to restore a network of ravine wetlands throughout the city that are on a migratory path for native songbirds.”
“So the little birdies have a home?”
She pursed her lips. It was hard not to stare at her mouth while she talked. It really was an unnatural shade of pink. “That is correct, though the ravines are home to lots of other wildlife, too. We’re in need of a lead donation to really kick off the project with a splash.”
“Are you extorting me?”
She raised her eyebrows, as if to challenge him. “You started it. You know, what with the blackmail.”
Damn, this woman had chutzpah. People didn’t usually talk to him like this. Actually, people never talked to him like this. He had a feeling Rose was what they called irrepressible. That wasn’t a quality the women in his social circle had in abundance. Which meant his father was going to go apeshit when he met her. “You tell me where to pick you up Saturday, and I’ll bring my checkbook.” This was going to be worth every penny.
She narrowed her eyes then, suspicious, as if he’d pulled one over on her even though he’d just agreed to her terms. “Does this suddenly seem a little, I don’t know, unsavory?”
“You mean like prostitution?”
“God! No! Well…yes.”
“Think of the birdies.” He handed her his phone. “Enter your contact info.”
“Oh, no!” she exclaimed, looking at the display on his phone. “Is that the time?”
“You have somewhere to be?” he asked as she entered her info, tossed him the phone, and began shutting down her computer.
“Yes! A date. In five minutes. Damn! I hate being late.”
That would explain the bright lips and heavy eye makeup. He let his eyes slide down her body. And the aqua sequined top, tight jeans that hugged her curves, and lime green heels. All the bright colors stood in dramatic contrast to the curtain of straight, black hair that hung to the middle of her back and, in the front, Bettie-Page-style curled bangs. “Somehow, I think your boyfriend will be inclined to forgive.”
“Oh, TallDoctor83 isn’t my boyfriend. Yet.”
“Right.” He let his gaze flicker down to the letter, which was still lying on the desk. “TallDoctor83 is tonight’s Mr. Thursday Night. Here’s hoping you don’t incite your date to vomit this time. Do you go out every Thursday night?”
“Yes, I do.” She snatched the letter and shoved it in her purse. “Internet dating is, alas, the way of the modern world.”
“Well, there is always blackmail.” He’d been going for a hint of levity, thinking maybe it was time to stop being so overtly rude now that he’d gotten what he wanted, but she just glared, shooed him out of her office, and locked the door. “I have a car,” he said. “Let me drop you off.”
She shot him a skeptical look. “That would be great, actually. Cabs are impossible this time of day, and I really hate being late.”
They descended the stairs silently, and when his car pulled up to the curb, she planted a hand on her hip. “You have a driver.” When he didn’t answer, she rolled her eyes and added, “Of course you do.”
He held the door open for her and slid into the backseat next to her. “Nate, we’re taking this lovely lady to…”
“The Thompson Hotel,” she said.
“Nice. So, let me take a wild guess. Your date is a doctor. A tall one.”
She didn’t answer, just looked at Nate and inclined her head a little. He forgot sometimes that the trappings of his lifestyle weren’t normal for everyone. “Oh, he’s sworn to secrecy, aren’t you, Nate?”
“Yes indeed,” his longtime driver replied.
“Still,” he said, reaching for the button that raised a tinted glass partition between the front and back seats. “If you want privacy, we can do this.”
“Sorry, Nate!” she called. Then she whirled on him and said, “A chauffeur? Really? You’re, like, the one percent, aren’t you?”
He shrugged. To him, it was a simple cost-benefit analysis. He had clients all over the region, and he spent a lot of time in the car. Given what he billed hourly, if he could use that time to work, Nate’s salary more than paid for itself. Plus, it was good for impressing women.
The one next to him just snorted in what appeared to be disdain. Damn, Rose Verma just said whatever she wanted, reacted however she wanted, context be damned, didn’t she? He had chosen well.
“So, TallDoctor83,” he said. “If 1983 is his birth year, that makes him, what? A little older than you?”
“I’m ByAnyOtherName86, if you’re fishing for my age.”
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. “Clever,” he said.
“Though no one ever gets the reference. I’ve gone out every Thursday night for the past year, and it’s only been commented on twice. And both times the guys thought Romeo and Juliet was romantic. I was like, dudes, they were teenagers, and they died.”
He leaned in while she was babbling and sniffed the air near her neck—which caused the fuchsia mouth to clamp shut. “You do smell good.” It was true. He couldn’t place the scent, but he liked it. It was bold, almost herbal. A refreshing change from the heavy floral scents the women in his family’s social circle favored.
She burst out laughing at that, which discombobulated him momentarily, as it was not the reaction he expected. “Perhaps your date will be literate as well as tall,” he said.
“I don’t have high hopes, to be honest.” She sighed and fell back theatrically against the back of the seat. “Well, that’s not true. I always have high hopes. It’s just that they’re usually dashed. I can count on one hand the number of second dates I’ve gone on over the past year. I had one guy that lasted three weeks, which is a record.”
Rose Verma definitely came from the other side of the tracks. In addition to smelling different than the women in his social circle, she also possessed a kind of chatty forthrightness that the careful, sophisticated women he knew wouldn’t be caught dead displaying. “What happened to him?” he couldn’t resist asking, though small talk wasn’t really his thing.
“Oh, what happened to him is that his wife found out about us, and I believe she cut off his balls.”
“Yeah. I’d thought of every possible question you might want to ask a person you met on a dating site, but somehow ‘Are you married?’ slipped my mind.”
“Why do you keep at it?” Internet dating seemed so undignified. “Why not just meet someone in the actual world?” He wasn’t the relationship type, but all the women he casually dated, he met through friends or at parties.
When she didn’t speak right away, he thought maybe she wasn’t going to answer. But then she sighed and said, “I have no idea why I’m telling you this, but years ago, I told my mother that when I turned thirty, if I was still single, I’d let her fix me up. My birthday is in a couple months, and that is not a road I want to go down. So my clock is ticking. Some people have a biological clock. I have a boyfriend clock.”
He almost laughed. Her mother sounded not unlike his father. Of course, Rose’s mother probably wasn’t a sociopath. “So hope springs eternal.”
She squared her shoulders and smiled. “It does. God knows why, but it does.”
They’d pulled up in front of the hotel. “Do you have a dress? For Saturday, I mean? It’s black tie.”
“Yes, I have a dress,” she shot back. “We can’t all be the one percent, but I’m not a total peasant.”
He held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. She was prickly, this one. All the better to stick it to dear old Dad. “All right, I’ll pick you up at six.”
“Don’t you mean Nate will pick me up at six?” When he didn’t answer, she just shook her head. “Thanks for the ride. This has been…really, really weird.”