“Oops,” she said in apology.
“Damn, girl, would you relax?” Kellie placed her other hand over their joined ones. “I don’t think you should’ve had that latte before we came. At least we should have gotten you the half-caf.”
Kellie was obviously trying to ease her nerves, but Libby couldn’t relax. Heck, she could barely breathe.
“I’m about to do the craziest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. Cut me some slack, huh? I’m a little wound up.”
“You don’t say?”
“Do I look all right?”
Kellie rolled her eyes. “You look fine, Libs.”
“Maybe I should have worn more makeup.”
“I don’t think they’re going to parade a bunch of guys out for you to pick one right here in the office, so chill out. You look great.”
Kellie’s brown hair was tied in a perfect ponytail at the back of her head, and her face was flawless. She’d done Libby’s hair and makeup and let her borrow one of her outfits, because Libby was clueless when it came to things like that. After all, college was the first time she’d been able to claim her own style, only to discover she didn’t actually have one. High school was spent in uniforms and her parents rarely let her leave the house in anything they didn’t approve of first. She needed a makeover to do this properly, because she couldn’t look like some clueless little girl. She had to appear mature and sophisticated.
“Are you sure this is legit?” Libby couldn’t stop herself asking the same questions over and over. “I mean, for real? I don’t think this is legal.”
“Oh my God, yes. My aunt did it, okay?” Kellie’s phone chimed and she picked it up from her lap. Guys were always texting her. “It’s legit, Libs, just calm down. You don’t even have to agree to anything. This is just to see if it’s something you want to try.”
Libby drew a shaky breath. “I have to go through with it. I already stole the money.”
“It’s just a loan, you’ll give it back.”
“Don’t you usually ask people for loans?”
“On what?” Libby’s voice went up a notch.
“You know, on stuff.” Kellie peered at her phone. “I don’t think it counts as stealing if it’s a family member.”
“Oh God, I’m going to jail.”
Kellie looked up from her phone and sighed. “Okay, you’re going to jail. And some big linebacker broad named Bertha is going to make you her prison bitch. The next time I see you, you’ll have a face tattoo and belong to a gang. Is that what you want to hear?”
Libby finally laughed.
But what if it happened?
Kellie shook her head and looked back at her phone. “Chill. Out.” She paused. “Oh hey, Sean texted me.”
“Is that the guy who’s obsessed with soccer?”
“No, he’s the one with the weird accent we can’t figure out. Still say he’s faking it.” She started typing.
Libby crossed her legs and bobbed her foot, looking around the office. Sunshine poured through the windows. A huge vase of flowers sat on the table next to her. A bunch of framed pictures of happy couples decorated the desk in front of them.
“I mean, how is it legal?” Libby switched legs. “Isn’t it prostitution?”
“Libby!” Kellie yanked her hand out of hers. “I don’t know, okay? You’ll have to ask her.”
As if on cue, the door behind the desk opened and a woman stepped through. She was middle-aged and blond, wearing a smart red dress. Despite the fact she was the sort of pretty, intelligent-looking woman who usually made Libby feel like a sack of dirty diapers, her face was pleasant and her eyes kind. Her smile almost made Libby relax.
“Liberty Dawson?” the woman inquired in a lilting voice.
Libby jumped to her feet and rubbed her sweaty palm on her skirt. “That’s me. It’s just Libby, though. That’s fine. You can just—call me Libby.” She held out her hand and only realized as the woman shook it that it was the other, still-sweaty one. Why couldn’t she stop being awkward for ten seconds?
The woman didn’t seem to notice Libby’s swamp hand, or at least, she was polite enough not to mention it. “Hello, Libby, I’m Monica Hunt. I’m the director of SASS.” She chuckled. “I love saying that.”
SASS stood for Singles Arrangement Service Specialists, a clunky phrase that Libby suspected they’d shoehorned together to get the acronym. On the surface, it was a matchmaking service, but the kind of match Libby was looking for went beyond the usual internet dating and single’s ad stuff.
“This is Kellie Smith, my best friend.” Libby wrung her hands. “She’s here for moral support. I’m a little nervous.”
Kellie had tucked her phone away. “My aunt used your service a couple years ago. I convinced Libby to call you and set up an appointment. Thought she might benefit from it too.”
“Really?” Monica spoke brightly as she sat down. Libby sat too. “Well, that covers my first question, how you discovered our services. And how are things with your aunt, Kellie?”
“Great. They’re still together.”
“I’m happy to hear that. Another success story.” She focused on Libby. “So, Libby, tell me exactly what you’re here for. Don’t be shy.”
Libby clutched the arms of her chair. The words sounded crazy before they even left her mouth.
“I need a husband. Before my twenty-third birthday, which is in six months.”
Monica didn’t burst into laughter. She and Kellie didn’t crack up and reveal this was all a huge prank, as Libby feared.
“I see.” Monica folded her hands on the desk. “Can you fill me in as to why?”
Libby didn’t like this part at all, but she supposed she couldn’t just walk in and demand a husband without an explanation. “It’s … sort of a trust fund thing.”
“Her dad is a complete dick,” Kellie more succinctly corrected.
Libby glared at her, then looked back at Monica. “It’s a complicated situation.”
“It’s not complicated.” Kellie was relentless. “Her dad has a giant trust fund put away for her, but she can only have it if she’s married before she turns twenty-three, ‘cause like I said, he’s a dick. And a misogynist. And a creep.”
Libby squeezed the bridge of her nose. “Yeah, it’s something like that. Complicated.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve heard things like this before.” Monica appeared unruffled. “Before we get down to business though, Libby, I must let you know that this is an expensive service. We charge a hefty fee. That’s why it works, because the men involved are handsomely compensated. We also insist the fee be paid in full before anything moves forward.”
Libby nodded. “It’s ten thousand dollars, I read the literature I requested.” She fidgeted with the hem of her skirt. “I have that much.”
“Ten thousand is the cheap package, the married-in-a-hurry package.” Monica opened a drawer in her desk. “Many women use it when they have a deadline, as you do. However, while it’s the cheapest package, it has some drawbacks.” She pulled out a fat red ledger and plunked it on the desk.
Libby twisted her skirt. “What are the drawbacks?” Besides ending up in prison, of course.
“After paying in full, you need to move forward quickly. You must get married within a week of obtaining the license. That might make it difficult if you have people in your life you need to tell you’re suddenly getting married to a man they’ve never met before.”
Libby had a sort-of plan to address such a thing. She’d cross that bridge when she got there.
“The arrangement is only for six weeks before the annulment takes place. That is, of course, unless you decide to extend the contract, and that does get pricey.”
Six weeks wasn’t long, but hopefully Libby wouldn’t even need it. “My dad gave my sister the money the week she got married as a wedding present, so hopefully, he’ll do the same for me.”
All the bridges she had to cross before she got to that one were rickety and traversed dangerous, shark-infested waters. But it would all be worth it, eventually.
Kellie reached over and squeezed her arm.
“I do have some questions.” Libby tried to stay calm. “Mostly, like, is this even legal?”
Monica gave her a blank-faced, fake smile. “Of course. We’re a matchmaking service that aims to provide companionship for lonely singles. We don’t offer the promise of anything long-term. If two adults want to get married, that’s their choice. Our commission is merely for the services we provide in helping them meet each other.”
Libby narrowed her eyes. Legal, but not legal. “It’s kind of like an escort service, then?”
“We provide discerning women with male companionship. There is no promise of sexual services and we do not promote prostitution.” Her speech sounded well-practiced. “The fact that some of our clients end up getting married just shows we do our job very well.”
Libby almost started laughing, but that would be impolite. She was here, seriously considering marrying a man she’d never met, so she didn’t exactly have a platform to ridicule from.
“We don’t handle anything with the marriage agreement.” Monica picked up the red ledger. “That’s between you and your companion. We take our fee and the rest of the sum is gifted to him.” She plopped the ledger in front of Libby.
“Yes, it’s not illegal, after all, for one consenting adult to give another consenting adult a monetary gift. We just handle the money for you, since it’s so much.”
So much gray area. Even Libby, who felt like she was in over her head in most things, could read between the lines. Of course, again, here she was, considering it. She could get up and walk out right now. She could find another, harder way to do this.
“Okay.” She took a deep breath. “Well, I have ten thousand dollars. So, what do I do next?”
Monica patted the ledger. “Would you like to look at the catalog?”
Libby eyed it. “The … catalog?”
“Yes. You came here to pick a husband, didn’t you?”
Libby still stared at it. Finally, she sat forward and took it, slowly, and stared at the blank front cover. “I thought you would just sort of assign me someone…”
Monica chuckled. “I’m not that good of a matchmaker, dear. There are some stipulations. If you can’t make a decision today and start the process with us before you leave, there’s a five hundred-dollar deposit to keep the catalog for forty-eight hours. If you decide not to use our services, half of that is nonrefundable. If you do go ahead, the full five hundred is applied toward your payment.”
Libby barely heard her. Was this really a book full of men for her to pick from, like a Sears catalog? Kellie leaned over and looked at it too.
“All that is merely to assure discretion,” Monica said, “and to assure it’s returned.” She gave Libby a saucy wink. “It’s a very exciting book.”
Libby was too scared to open it.
“Would you like to fill out some initial paperwork?”
Twenty minutes later, Libby left the office with the book in her arms, clutched to her chest. Kellie placed a hand on her back. They stopped in the hallway and Libby turned to her, very much on the verge of freaking out.
“I can’t do this. This is crazy. I should take this back in there and have her rip up the check. Do you think she’d refund me since I haven’t actually left the building yet?”
“Libs.” Kellie clutched her shoulders. “You can do this. You already stole the money from your mom, and I gave you the other half from my grant. You’re too far in to back out now. Be brave.”
“I’ll give it back to you and I’ll put the money back in Mom’s safe.” Hysterics bubbled inside her, making her queasy. “If Daddy ever finds out about this he’ll murder me. Like, probably hire a hitman to kill me. I couldn’t see him doing it himself, he wouldn’t want to risk his reputation and—”
Kellie gripped her face, stopping her babble. “Libby, you’re going to change the world. When you get that half-million, you’re going to save lives with it. Imagine what you’ll do. That’s worth a little bit of craziness, right?”
Libby gazed at her.
Kellie went on, speaking calmly but firmly. “You’ll pay me back, and your mom, and you’ll make all your dreams come true. Okay?”
Libby tried to calm down and breathe.
“Your dad is a class-A douchebag and he deserves to get tricked. You’re going to do so much good, Libby. You’re smart and you’re talented and you’ve got a brilliant soul. I believe in you. You’ve got this.”
Libby was trembling. “I’ve never done something so insane. College must have corrupted me, just like Daddy said it would.” She tried to force a smile.
“Yeah, corrupted you, in the best way possible.” Kellie pulled her into a tight hug. “Just a couple weeks of crazy for a lifetime of awesome.” She drew back and looked down at the catalog. “I’m dying to see what’s in there.”
Libby looked down at it too and let out a shaky laugh. “Ditto.”
Libby sat on the couch in Kellie’s tiny apartment—the spot where Libby was currently crashing while she lived out of a suitcase and duffel bag—knees drawn up, eyes big as she flipped through the pages of the book.
Kellie hustled out of the kitchen, carrying two glasses of red wine. “Shove over, I wanna see.”
Libby lowered her knees and scooted over. Kellie sat down next to her and handed her one of the glasses.
“I can’t believe my aunt picked her boyfriend out of a book.” Kellie peered over. “Do you think she got a book like this? I never asked her.”
Libby took a sip of the wine. She’d never even tasted alcohol until she went to college. Her mother always condemned the drinking of any kind of booze, and brought up her alcoholic father—Libby’s grandfather—any time the subject arose. This was compounded by the fact that Libby’s father was also a heavy drinker, and most of the time, Libby thought she was just using her own father as an example so she didn’t have to condemn her husband out loud. Libby felt like she was doing something bad, drinking it up like some wanton lush, and she’d had so few alcoholic drinks so far she could still count them on one hand.
But she’d been doing lots of other bad things lately.
“This is mind boggling.” Libby turned a page. “I mean, they’re all so handsome. I didn’t expect that.”
“No kidding, look at him.” Kellie gaped. “And him! Dang, I wonder if I can take more money out of my account?”
Each page of the catalog presented a different man. Two pictures were provided: a head shot and a full body shot. Beneath was a list of basic information—a first name only, their age, ethnicity, occupation, and interests and hobbies. So far, she hadn’t come across any guys who were into geeky things like microbiology and humanitarian efforts.
Monica had told her this catalog exclusively contained men who were willing to enter into short and long-term marriages. The company strictly catered to heterosexual women, though they had a sister company that served the gay community. Were there really so many men out there willing to accommodate desperate people for money?
A dumb question.
“Of course they’re hot, Libs.” Kellie hung over her shoulder. “You can’t charge that much for a scrub.”
Libby clutched the stem of her glass and stared across the room, her other hand flat on the catalog. Panic rose in her once again. “I can’t do this.”
“Stop it.” Kellie poked her in the ribs. “Yes, you can.”
“My parents aren’t stupid. They’ll figure out what’s going on.”
“They haven’t figured out you dropped out of school yet, have they? Or that you moved out of the dorm and you’re staying here with me?”
“Maybe I should go back.”
Kellie gripped her arm. “Do you really want to be a schoolteacher? Come on. Tell me right now what you want. Say it.”
Kellie made her do this when she started to doubt herself. She made Libby say it out loud, so she would believe it.
“I want to study microbiology and bacteriology so I can create a filtration system that helps provide clean drinking water in compromised areas.” She spoke the words by memory. “As soon as I get my dad’s money, I’m going back to school. I’m also going to start up a nonprofit that helps people in perilous situations where clean water is unavailable.” She balled her hand into a fist on the catalog. “That’s what I want to do. I don’t want to be a teacher.”
Libby’s father believed women shouldn’t be involved in fields like science and technology, and since he paid her tuition, she had to get her degree in a “feminine” field, such as education. But she’d had this desire since she was a teenager, even before, after she’d watched a documentary in fifth grade about the lack of potable water in impoverished areas. She’d done a science project on it her freshman year, something she’d never let her father see. She borrowed textbooks from the library and read them under the covers in bed at night, like they were some kind of shameful porn.
Kellie squeezed her arm. “Your parents are controlling assholes. This is your life, and you have a right to live it. Once you have that money, they can’t touch you and they can’t tell you what to do.”
Libby looked at her. “How did I ever manage to find a friend like you?” She was still baffled by it, especially since she didn’t make friends easily. She was much too shy.
“Luck.” Kellie kissed her cheek. “Or maybe you have a guardian angel.”
Libby lifted her hand from the catalog and looked down at the page she was on. Her stomach did a flip.
The man there was gorgeous, like the rest of them, but in a different way. Something intangibly unique stood out about him, something that captured her attention and made her blush, though it was just a picture. She couldn’t articulate it, but she felt it.
He had heavy-lidded blue eyes, the type they called “bedroom eyes,” she supposed. They seemed to gaze right into her. His smile was self-assured and almost mischievous, like he knew a secret. He had sharp cheekbones and a light growth of hair adorned his square jaw and upper lip. His hair was loose and wavy, dark blond, and curled thickly at his collar. Her dad would say he needed to sit his ass down in a barber’s chair. She thought it was sexy.
Like the rest of the men in the catalog he wore a suit, tailored to his long, trim frame in the full-length picture. He was handsome, confident, and the type of guy she would turn into a quivering little bunny rabbit in front of.
She didn’t realize she’d been staring at the page until Kellie giggled.
“He’s pretty nice, huh?”
Libby’s blush intensified. She skimmed his information. “Blaine.” She rolled her eyes to hide her embarrassment. “That sounds like something out of a romance novel. I wonder if it’s his real name?”
Kellie shrugged. “My aunt’s boyfriend used his real name. It’s John, by the way.”
“John.” Libby grinned. “How sensible.”
Blaine was twenty-nine. A little too old for her, maybe. He was Caucasian with Irish and French heritage. She continued down his list of stats.
She scrunched up her nose. “He’s a stockbroker.” She didn’t know anything about finance, another thing her father said was a man’s domain. “He likes cooking, running, travel, and foreign films.” She shook her head. “We’d have nothing to talk about during our short, weird marriage.” She started to turn the page.
Kellie grabbed her hand and stopped her. She eased the page back down. “He caught your eye, though. That means something.”
“Yeah, but there’s a lot of nice guys in here. I need to find one I at least have something in common with.”
“This is just a short list.” Kellie indicated his stats. “Do you think this is the only stuff he likes? Besides, Libs, you’re interesting. You could teach him a few things.”
“Me?” She laughed. “I’m not interesting. Where did you get that idea?”
“He knows money, and you need to know about money to start your nonprofit, right? It’s not all about helping people, you gotta know the ins and outs and technicalities of running something like that. And who knows, maybe he could help you invest some of your money and do even more with it.”
Libby chewed on her lower lip and gazed at Blaine’s pictures. God, his eyes were beautiful. She also imagined staring into them in person and how horribly weird she’d be.
“You should give him a shot.” Kellie sat up and grabbed her wine glass from the stand next to the couch. “I mean, it’s only six weeks, right? Not even that, if your father gives you the money sooner.”
“I don’t know. I need to think about it for a while. I mean, I should look through the rest of the catalog, right? It’s not fair if I don’t consider them all.” She ruffled the remaining pages.
“Drink your wine and stop thinking so hard.” Kellie urged Libby’s glass to her mouth. “Obey your vagina.”
Libby laughed, flushing again, and took a drink. She winced. She wasn’t used to that burn. By half a glass she was usually tipsy.
“He’s too old though,” Libby protested. “I think I should pick someone younger.”
Kellie craned her neck. “Oh God, twenty-nine. Yeah, he’s way over the hill.” She took a drink.
Libby sighed. “I need to think about it. This isn’t like buying a pair of shoes.”
Kellie got up. “I’m gonna go check the food.” She headed toward the kitchen, but stopped and looked back. “You’re doing the right thing, Libs. Get crazy, girl.”
“You’re a lot crazier than me. You are my inspiration.” Libby flung her hand dramatically in the air. “You inspire me!”
Kellie headed into the kitchen, yelling back, “And you get to do it with a hot guy. Bonus!”
Libby looked down at Blaine. A mature, sophisticated stockbroker with socially acceptable hobbies. The kind of guy who would never be interested in a dumpy, sheltered college girl with delusional aspirations to save the world. Unless, of course, she paid him.
She turned the page. The next guy was generically handsome and an accountant. She studied him a moment, took a deeper drink of her wine, and turned the page again, back to Blaine.
This was going to be more difficult than she imagined.