Nikki paced the length of the broad, sunny hallway, twisting the ring on her finger. The band didn’t move easily though, because it fit too well. That was the advantage of buying your own engagement ring: you got the perfect size.
The hallway was lined with plants, and floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on a small garden with a fountain in the middle. She forced herself to stop pacing and stood staring out, watching the water spill over the bowl at the top and splash into the pool at the bottom. She shouldn’t be this nervous. It would be easy, after all: hand over some money, do a little playacting, and by next week, this would be some random, quirky incident she’d look back on and laugh about. She’d save face and no one else would ever have to know what she did. Her little secret.
You don’t want that jerk to have anything else to feel superior about, do you? You’ll show him how good you did, how successful and happy you are now. It’ll slap that stupid, smug look right off his face. You know he still has that look. Ugh.
But I’m not successful and happy. That’s why I have to pay to pretend I am.
Nikki turned swiftly on her heels, dress swishing around her legs. She didn’t know why she dressed up for this. From what she’d read, she wouldn’t meet the guy here, right now. She had to—pick him out first.
“Yes.” She clutched the ring again, staring at the woman who had addressed her.
The woman smiled. “You’re my two o’clock. A few minutes early, even. Isn’t it nice when that happens?”
Nikki tried to take a deep breath and relax. “Yes, I’m Nikola. You can call me Nikki, though, most people do. And I assume you’re … Ms. Hunt?”
“Yes, and you can call me Monica, Nikki.”
Monica Hunt was middle-aged and blonde, and pretty in a way that didn’t make Nikki so much envious as it dazzled her. She had a glow about her, and her eyes were kind and sparkling, her smile warm. She wore a smart blue dress that complemented her skin tone and she smelled like sweet floral perfume. She looked like everyone’s favorite wealthy aunt.
One of those happy, successful women Nikki wished so badly to be.
“It’s so nice to meet you.” Monica shook her hand. Her skin was silky smooth. “Again, I’m so sorry we couldn’t meet in my office, they’re doing renovations right now. I’m finally getting some much-needed extra space. Maybe I’ll put some more catalogs in there.” She winked and patted the leather-bound book she held in her other hand.
Nikki glanced at the book. The fabled Man Catalog. It was real.
“But no worries. As the director of SASS”—Monica chuckled—“I love saying that—I can assure you that no matter where we hold this meeting, you will come away satisfied.”
SASS stood for Singles Arrangement Service Specialists, superficially a dating service, but in reality, a bit more. Nikki found out about it from the woman who did her hair. The woman wasn’t a friend, just an acquaintance, so it didn’t matter if she knew what Nikki was up to. She didn’t have connections to anybody else in Nikki’s life, either.
If Nikki’s friends or family found out she was doing this, she’d die from embarrassment, or at least, feel like a bigger loser than she did already.
“I can really buy a man?” Nikki lowered her voice to almost a whisper, because it still seemed scandalous. “I can give him money and he’ll—be mine?”
Monica gave a hearty chuckle. She laced her arm through Nikki’s and led her down the hallway. “We provide dating services for lonely women, yes. And for a fee, yes. We have many success stories.” She side-eyed her. “If you happen to end up engaged or even married, why, that proves we’re doing our job correctly, doesn’t it?”
Nikki narrowed her eyes. From the moment she heard about this, she wondered how legal it was. It didn’t exactly sound like prostitution, but if you could pay a guy to be your fiancé, or even marry you—her hairdresser said you could buy husbands, too—that seemed to saunter into a gray area.
“Let’s find a nice quiet place to talk.” Monica tugged her arm. “You can tell me what you’re looking for and I’ll see if I can set you up with the right match.”
Monica’s demeanor and tone put her at ease. Nikki managed to relax a bit.
They ended up in a small conference room, looking out on a parking lot—quite a bit less scenic than the garden and fountain, but this at least felt more like they were conducting business. Monica urged her to sit at the head of the long table in the room and she took a chair next to her on the left. She placed the book on the table. The cover was black and blank, revealing no hint of what was inside. It was a little bigger than an average magazine.
“Tell me about yourself, Nikki.” Monica swiveled to face her, still smiling. “What do you do?”
Nikki flipped her hair over her shoulder and folded her hands in her lap. She supposed this was the part where money came into question. She knew this wasn’t going to be cheap, but she’d thought long and hard about it.
“I help my grandma run a thrift store, in Greenpoint, in Brooklyn.”
“Ah, I knew that name was Polish.” Monica grinned. “I have a few very good Polish friends who live in that area.”
Nikki smiled too. “Yep. My great-grandparents were from Warsaw. I’ve never been to Poland myself, but boy did they tell stories about it when I was little.” She paused. “But yeah, we run a thrift store. My grandmother and grandfather owned it for nearly thirty years, but Grandpa died a few years ago and Grandma needed someone to help her out, so I stepped in.”
Monica leaned back. “A thrift store.” She gave her a once-over. “You’re so fashionable. That certainly doesn’t look like thrift shop couture.”
Nikki’s cheeks warmed, and she smoothed her hands over her dress. It was loose and flowy, with long sleeves and a frilly collar. White, with pastel-blue flowers. It felt good against her skin.
“You’d be surprised at the treasures you find among the donations.” She plucked at the fitted wrists, which bloomed into flounces over her hands. “I actually found this in a bin. Exactly my size. I did a few alterations, but I was so happy I came across it.”
“You have an eye for pretty things.” Monica was obviously admiring the dress, not just giving lip service. “It looks beautiful on you, classical and yet hip at the same time.”
“Someday I’d like to have my own vintage clothing store.” Nikki’s enthusiasm bubbled over, displacing any anxiety she was still feeling. “Every time I come across some old, but still beautiful item that I can see was well-cared for, I get all excited. I picture the person who wore it and what the style was like at the time. There’s a bunch of vintage stores on Manhattan Avenue and I love going there. I could spend all day—and all my money—in them.”
Monica gazed at her, eyes glittering. “You sound like you have a passion. Your grandmother helped spark that in you?”
“I guess so. I used to help out in the store when I was younger, too. But I used to hate it because I thought it smelled funny.” She chuckled. “Thrift stores are becoming chic now. It’s cool to get your clothes secondhand. My grandmother both loves and hates it. She likes the increased business, but she’s kind of a purist. ‘Thrift stores are supposed to help the less fortunate,’ she says. ‘They’re not supposed to be where everyone gets their wardrobe, especially not those silly hipster kids these days.’”
Monica chuckled too. “Well, I don’t think she has to worry that everyone will give up expensive designers and high-end boutiques any time soon. This is New York, after all.”
Nikki nodded. She often listened to her grandmother bicker while they sorted through donations or hung clothes. She would roll her eyes, but she didn’t mind so much. Her grandmother was a kind, hearty old soul. Nikki’s greatest fear was losing her next.
“So, tell me, Nikki. What are you here for?”
Nikki took a deep breath. She crossed her legs, flexing her foot in her heel. She’d gotten them in one of those vintage stores, and they certainly weren’t as cheap as the dress had come.
“I need a fiancé.” No point being coy about it. “For a couple days, anyway.” She held up her hand. “I already have the ring. Now I need the guy.”
The ring was cheap but looked real. That was all that mattered. Her grandmother knew a guy who dealt in jewelry, and she’d bought it off him, pretending she liked how it looked. She hoped he wouldn’t say anything.
Monica eyed the ring. “And may I inquire why you want to do this?”
Nikki was hoping she wouldn’t have to go into it, but she supposed that was part of the deal. She could tell Monica she didn’t want to explain, but Monica was so kind, so gentle-spoken. She made Nikki feel like she could confide in her. And after all—wasn’t she here to purchase some pretty personal services?
“My … ex-boyfriend is coming to town.” She felt lame as the words escaped her mouth. “I haven’t seen him, or even really talked to him, in two years. He invited me to a party. And his very pretty, very rich new fiancée will be there as well.”
Monica raised her eyebrows.
“I know I should decline the invitation.” She felt even lamer. “But—he was always kind of a jerk, and he always kind of lorded himself over me, so—I want to show him I’m not a total loser. That I did well after him. That way he won’t be able to say anything condescending to me.”
She deflated inside as she said the words. She was a total loser. If she wasn’t, she’d already have a fiancé, for real. Or at least, a boyfriend. She knew he’d invited her to gloat, and it burned her up inside. She wanted to show him up, even after all this time.
“I see.” Monica turned and lifted the book, and Nikki saw she had a notebook underneath it as well. She drew it out and pulled a pen off that was clipped to it. “And how long will you require a gentleman to fill your need?” She opened the notebook.
“Just a few days.” Nikki wondered how time effected the price. “Like, he comes to town Friday, the day before the party, but I guess I won’t need him then. I’m not going out of my way to run into him. And then the party is on Saturday, so—really only the weekend?”
Monica wrote in the notebook. “We can accommodate engagements of varying lengths.” She looked up, smirking, seemingly at her own pun. “And of course, our pricing is to ensure adequate compensation for the gentlemen’s time. But the contract will start from the time you sign it, which you should do as soon as possible. It can conclude at the end of the weekend.”
Nikki nodded. “And—how much will it be?” She wouldn’t need him much outside the weekend. What the heck was she going to do with a man for longer, anyway?
“Fifteen hundred dollars.” Monica wrote in the notebook again. “You already have the ring, so that’s a bit of a discount. We throw in some props, when needed.”
Fifteen hundred. That wasn’t so much, was it? To put a smug bastard in his place. She thought of her savings account. There was enough in there, but it meant she wouldn’t be able to go down the coast with her friends this summer. That was okay, she’d come up with some excuse by then. Maybe the store would be so busy she couldn’t get away.
Nikki nodded. “That’s fine.”
“Are you sure?” Monica sat back. She tapped her pink nails on the tabletop. “We don’t want to push anyone into anything. Once you sign the contract with us, there is no refund. That’s simply not fair to our contractors.”
“Contractors,” Nikki repeated. The guys who sold their services. She nodded again, more vigorously this time. “I’m absolutely positive.”
Monica picked up the black book and held it out to her. Nikki stared at it.
“Then, dear, pick one. This is the relevant catalog. There are other ones, for women looking for dates, and women looking for—more serious arrangements. This is the in-between one.”
Serious arrangements. That meant marriage. This was for engagements.
Or rather, fake engagements.
Nikki took it, tentatively. It felt heavy in her hands, though it wasn’t particularly thick.
“You might have some trouble deciding. If you’d like to take it home overnight to peruse, there is a hefty non-refundable deposit.” Monica smiled. “We don’t want to lose it, after all.”
Nikki uncrossed her legs and placed it on her lap. Cautiously, she opened the front cover.
Her reluctance quickly gave way to curiosity and amazement. Each page of the catalog showcased a different man with two pictures: a headshot and a full body shot. Beneath was a list of information. A first name, age, ethnicity, occupation, and interests and hobbies. Of course, all of them were gorgeous, suave, well-dressed, and had highly desirable profiles. Prime meat.
“So—you sell women husbands too? That’s really true?” Nikki kept her voice down, though she didn’t know why. Obviously, anyone who might overhear knew what they sold here.
“Temporary ones, for various needs. Though sometimes they stay together.” Monica sounded amused. “Those are the stories I like the most. The same with engagements.”
Nikki tilted her head. “Is that legal?”
Monica chuckled. “I simply bring people together, dear, and take a fee for my services. What consenting adults choose to do after that is up to them. And it’s also up to them if a woman wants to give a man a monetary gift.” She winked.
A technicality. Shrewd. Clever.
Nikki continued flipping through the pages. This was so intimidating. All of these men were well put-together and handsome, and she worried what they’d think of her. What if, like her ex, she picked one who sneered over her and judged her for every little thing? What if he wasn’t impressed by some chick who worked in a thrift store and wore secondhand clothes? What if she picked some wealthy, snobby, self-absorbed guy who was as bad as the man she was trying to get revenge on?
“All our gentlemen are well-vetted.” Monica jarred her out of her thoughts. “They have to present a clean background, go through a drug screening, and they must prove they can comport themselves in a decent manner and treat our customers well. We don’t tolerate any sort of disrespectful behavior or intimidation of our clients. That gets an immediate firing and they don’t get paid.”
Nikki blinked. Was this woman a mind-reader, in addition to being the nicest person she’d ever met?
“It’s still kind of scary.” Nikki nibbled on her thumbnail. “I mean, what if I pick the wrong one? There’s so many to choose from.” She flipped a page.
She went still, gazing at the pictures she saw there.
“Gabriel” was a business owner, though it didn’t say what kind of business, she assumed for privacy reasons. He looked laid-back, stylish, kind of sweet, and, as an added bonus, freakin’ gorgeous.
In both pictures, he focused an intense, smoldering yet playful gaze at the camera. His eyes were mirthful and bright, pale blue and pretty with long lashes. His face was heart-shaped and rugged, but there was a boyish cuteness to it as well. He had some scruff, the orderly kind that showed he took care of it even if he didn’t want a full beard. He didn’t have any hair on his head, just some fine peach fuzz, and though she wasn’t usually into bald guys, it looked good on him—it didn’t make him look older or intimidating, it suited his face and demeanor. He looked like a fun, happy guy you might meet in a corner bar and have a great conversation with.
In the full-length picture, he was rather stocky and buff, dressed in Chuck Taylors, form-fitting dress pants, and a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his hands in his pockets. He had tattoos up both forearms.
Her grandma would take one look at his bald, tattooed, pretty ass and ask what prison he just got out of. Her ex would size him up and frown, a lot. He’d wonder if his own biceps were that big or if he could pull off a hip bald look. Her ex definitely didn’t have a sexy shape like this either—he couldn’t fill out a pair of pants that well if he had to.
She read his stats more closely. He was twenty-seven, Nordic, and his interests included music, cooking, reading, art, and physical fitness.
A cute, fit, bad boy who was a “business owner,” which meant he was probably smart and college-educated too. The wheels were already turning in her head. If she picked someone too conservative and hoity-toity, her ex would laugh and not buy it.
He had such a nice smile, too, in his head shot—it was kind and brilliant, and his teeth weren’t exactly perfect, which she found charming. His lips were full and pink. Nice for kissing. But she wasn’t going to kiss him—was she?
“Hmm,” she hummed to herself. She couldn’t choose so fast, right? She should probably look through the entire catalog before she made a choice.
“You seem to be lingering.” Monica’s voice was light and playful. “Don’t worry, it happens. Sometimes love finds you, you know?”
Nikki laughed. “Or, a business opportunity, I guess?”
She felt a stab of guilt. Gabriel looked like a decent guy—a great guy, really. Would doing something like this be insulting to him? Used to make her ex jealous? She then reminded herself the dude had put himself in a catalog and wanted women to pay him to pretend to be their fiancé. He’d probably done this multiple times. Not exactly the position from which to criticize her for wanting to play pretend.
“You know, I think I’m going to take him.” She tapped her fingertip on the catalog. “He looks cool. And nice.” It was impulsive, but if she sat too long on this decision, she would probably chicken out anyway.
Monica leaned over.
“He looks like a nice guy with some edge.” Nikki shrugged. “I don’t think my ex would approve of him, most importantly. This guy is definitely cooler than him.”
Monica smiled. “Well, if it’s what you want. You can have some more time to choose, if you like.”
Nikki looked at his pictures again. Yes. He was perfect. Gazing into his beautiful, kind eyes made her feel good, like he would go along with this and not think badly of her at all. She didn’t need to look any further. This was easier than she expected.
“No, I want him.” Nikki sat up straighter and tried to be all business. “Okay, so what happens next? I pay you, and then what? I meet this guy and tell him what I want him to do?” She paused. “They’re okay with that, right? Going along with schemes like this?”
“Of course, yes.” Monica was still perfectly at ease. “That’s the whole nature of this, after all. We’re here to provide whatever you need.”
Nikki nodded. “It won’t be any problem, the fifteen hundred.”
She kept glancing down at the catalog. Damn, he was hot. Cool. Why on earth did a guy like that need to sell himself? She was certainly glad he chose to do so, though.
“All right, you’ll meet first,” Monica said. “To make sure you get along and have chemistry. You won’t be charged until you agree to working with each other, and then you’ll sign some paperwork. When do you need him by?”
“Friday.” That was two days from now, so she hoped she and Gabriel got along—or, that he was even available. What if he was doing work for another girl right now? She didn’t have time to try on a bunch of guys like outfits. “Don’t worry, we’ll make it work.”
Monica took the book back. “And you’re sure this is the man you want?” She looked at the page. “You don’t want to browse some more?”
“Yes. No.” Nikki was worried, though. “Okay, but, what if he’s working right now? Can—do these men work with more than one woman at a time?”
“No, they only work with one lady at a time. I can check his availability right now.” She picked up her phone from the table and started typing on it.
Nikki twisted her hands in her lap, waiting.
Monica looked up from her phone a minute later, with a bright smile. “He’s available.”
Nikki breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay, so what now?”
“I’ll give him a call this afternoon and arrange a meeting for you. Most of our gentlemen are very quick to respond. It’s important to get things rolling, especially when you’re on a time crunch. Are you free tonight?”
Nikki nodded. “Yes.” She had the evening off, as tonight was the night the volunteer workers from the church filled in. “Just let me know.”
They said their goodbyes and Monica gave her a light hug and some reassuring words. A few minutes later, she stepped onto the street, feeling like she’d come back from some bizarre dimension. The warm spring breeze tugged at her dress and ruffled her hair.
No, this was reality, and she was about to buy a guy to piss off Jezzy Hilton, the biggest douchebag in New York State, America, the world, and currently the asshole with the number two song on the pop charts nationwide. A catchy, dance-y song that everyone seemed to like but she found as grating and annoying as him.
That could have been your life, girl. The rock star’s girlfriend—traveling, living the good life, sipping champagne, all the girls in the club jealous of you…
She muttered, “Yeah, but that would have meant having to hang out with him, too.”
She looked at the paperwork Monica had given her and pictured Gabriel’s face again. Sweet, open, soft and sexy at the same time. Those blue eyes. His imperfect smile.
I hope you’re as nice as you look. She clutched the papers. I could really use a nice guy in my life for a change, even if I’m paying for it.