Horns for days? Scaled to perfection? Tantalizing tentacles?
You name it, I’ve matched it.
But running a matchmaking agency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when your clients are the very things that go bump in the night.
Wanting to secure our business, my sisters and I make a bet with the gods to match anyone they want in order to gain their sponsorship. However when they tell me they want me to find my own perfect match and bond with them instead, things turn complicated.
With no time to date, a new business to run, and my kids to take care of, it’s a miracle I’m able to keep my eyes open.
And don’t even get me started on my sexy stalker who happens to be part of the new wolf pack in town. It’s just too bad they don’t meet the requirements for the bet.
It’s also too bad they just happen to be my newest clients.
When an unknown threat to my business and family rears its head, I’ll have to find the true meaning of pack or risk losing everything I’ve worked so hard for.
Being a single mom was like running a marathon, only there was no finish line, and the path was paved with stray toys that you’d inadvertently step on and would scar the bottom of your foot forever.
“Fu—Phee,” I called, kicking toys out of the way once again. “It’s open!”
“Hey, Momma, looks like you could use a hand,” Phee said, closing the door behind her as she surveyed my living room that looked more like a mass murder scene than anything else. Her eyes widened behind her blue-tinted frames as she deliberately ignored the cluttered shoe rack and stepped deeper into the room with her combat boots still on. At least one of us was prepared for battle.
“Auntie Phee! Did you come to play with us?” Josh, my youngest, asked, bounding over to his aunt without stepping over any of the blasted toys that were still in the way.
“Boys, I’ve told you at least five times today, keep your toys on the rug or you can’t have them in the living room anymore,” I reminded, rubbing my temples and hoping that the caffeine would kick in soon.
“Mom, we’re out of milk. How am I supposed to eat cereal?” Zack asked, all teenage angst and exasperation. As if I, in my plot to ruin his life, had let us run out of milk. Forget the fact that it was probably his third bowl of the day.
“Mom, can I have cereal like Zack too, please?” Trevor, my middle and surprisingly polite son, asked. Thankfully, the hormones from puberty hadn’t hit him yet, so it saved me from the sass Zack seemed to have down to a science.
“Maybe later, bud. I’ll try to run to the store—”
“Right now,” my sister said, stepping in and nodding her head rapidly, braids swinging back and forth. Her gloved hands rubbed together mischievously. “You go. I can stay and handle them for a few hours. I’m sure we’ll survive.”
“You sure?” I said, already edging towards the door to slip on my shoes, only halfway holding my breath.
Phee would keep them safe and alive, give or take a few Sharpie tattoos. My house, on the other hand, might be a little worse for wear when I got back, but really, that was a small price to pay for a moment of sanity.
As a mom, when you get a single moment of reprieve, you cherish it. You hang onto those brief moments as lifelines that get you through the day-to-day chaos that rules your life.
“Get out of here, I got this,” she said, throwing her arm around the boys and guiding them towards the front room.
Taking my cue and not waiting for her to tell me more than twice, I strode out of there like I was about to go on a mini vacay to Fiji.
Never mind that my yoga pants had seen better days or that my shirt had distinctly two different types of coffee stains on it.
Past the point of caring, I zoned out. I didn’t even remember driving to the store or grabbing a cart. My body was on autopilot and enjoying the brief freedom.
“I would go with the Gala apples myself,” a cheerful voice said from next to me, breaking me out of my stupor of basking in the overhead fluorescent lights and listening to the dulcet sounds of elevator music.
Looking down, I realized my cart blocked the aisle, angled just in front of the crates that hosted the selections of fresh fruit. Maybe I should have reheated my last mug of coffee a fourth time before leaving the house.
Life, for lack of a better word, had been stressful lately. Between starting the new business with my sisters and juggling my three boys, there never seemed to be a minute of downtime.
“Apologies,” I said, finally turning my attention to the man who had offered his opinion.
He was adorkable, all big smiles and teeth, slightly rocking back and forth on his toes like he had too much energy to contain.
His loose mahogany curls fell slightly in his eyes as he pushed them aside, revealing a pair of honey brown eyes that almost seemed to shine with an infectious happiness.
“No apologies needed. I’m always up for helping a beautiful lady like yourself in need,” he countered without a hint of shame, tucking his hands into his khaki corduroys.
Young. Much too young for my thirty-four-year-old self, and yet I couldn’t help my rising eyebrows at his self-confidence and self-assuredness. Unapologetically himself and confident enough to hit on someone who looked like they were caught in the middle of a tug of war with two gremlins.
There was something in those honey-colored eyes and the unexpected compliment that touched me, his magnetic personality awakening a part of me I hadn’t felt in some time.
“Thanks for the suggestion,” I said, reaching and grabbing the bag of Galas in front of me.
“You’re welcome!” he replied, taking a step closer and reaching out to grab a bag himself. “They’re just the right amount of sweet.”
And then that’s when it happened.
As he reached over to grab the apples, he, ever so subtly, turned his head towards me, and I swear to gods that I heard him take a huge inhale, followed by what sounded like a subtle groan.
“Did you just sniff me?” I asked incredulously, that warm feeling inside turning to warning.
Never mind the fact that I probably smelled like day old mac and cheese and desperation.
Taking a step back, I tried to get a read on him. It was just my luck that I would attract a certain kind of crazy on my one trip out alone. It seemed my worn-out mom vibes were still kryptonite, despite years of sleep deprivation.
“What?” he said, taking a quick step back and almost tripping over his feet as he steadied himself on his cart. “Why would I sniff you? That’s definitely not normal. And I, for one, am completely normal, nothing un-normal about me,” he rambled with a frantic laugh, striking a pose with his legs crossed and leaning against the cart.
“Super normal,” I said sarcastically, shaking my head at his slightly spazzy demeanor, only to see the cart start to slip under his elbow and glide away from him, making him stumble once again.
He shot me a sheepish look, catching his bottom lip between his teeth as he caught my gaze again. His eyes filled with an edge of hunger and worry. It was almost as if he was hanging onto my every response.
“Can we just forget you ever saw that and start over?” he asked, brushing his hands over his blue sweater as he straightened himself out.
“And why would we do that? I doubt a recommendation on apples needs further explanation. Or were you going to admit to the fact that you just sniffed me?” I challenged, casting him a pointed look before turning away from him and the tug in my chest, pushing my cart farther down the aisle.
The last thing I needed in my life was another dose of strange, which this situation had in spades.
This adorkable man looked like he had trouble written all over him. Or maybe that was just my ovaries talking. It had been a hot minute since I had indulged in a night for myself. And given my line of work, that was almost unheard of.
“We need to start over because we’re going to be amazing together and you strike me as the type of person who could stand some extra company. Even if it’s just something as simple as recommending a type of apples,” he intoned, catching up and pushing his cart along next to mine as he sent me a cheeky grin.
“Has anyone ever explained to you the meaning of personal boundaries?” I questioned, laughing nervously as I subtly looked around for the security guard. I could handle him myself, but that would just create more questions, and all I really wanted to do was just shop for my groceries in peace.
His smile grew wider as his head tilted to the side. “You should really do that more. Your laugh is beautiful. Maybe that’s how we should start our wonderful life together—with me getting you to laugh more.”
The man was like the Energizer Bunny who never quit, unlike some of my toys back at home. Maybe I could just…
“Okay, Casanova, why don’t you save the pickup lines for someone your own age? I need to finish my grocery shopping before my brood starts eating cardboard boxes to try to sustain themselves,” I deflected, trying to put more space between us.
Turning around a corner with my cart, I began to grab the go-to items I knew were affordable that my kids would actually eat. With three boys to feed, they could devour me out of house and home if I let them. But there was also only so many times one could eat peanut butter and jelly without wanting to chuck the jar at the wall.
Outside of that, there were only so many meals I could make that one, didn’t take forever, and two, all my kids would eat without going on a hunger strike. I’d learned long, long ago that it was better to pick my battles. My boys weren’t going to die of scurvy anytime soon, and that small win was enough for me.
“Oh, Ava! Bless your heart, honey, is that you?” questioned a shrill and way too perky voice that belonged to none other than Karen, the picture perfect PTA mom that I’d have loved to hate to feel better about myself and my strung out priorities, but was actually a genuine person at heart. It turned out not all women are actually out to get you, and while Karen may in fact be a ‘Karen,’ somewhere in her heart of hearts, I knew that her helpful attempts at aid came from a good place.
A good place buried real, real deep. Behind her layers of normalcy and privilege, right behind her expensive velour jumpsuit.
“Hi, Karen,” I acknowledged, throwing her a small smile as I grabbed a couple packs of lunchmeat and tried to duck into the next aisle without engaging with her. So much for a relaxing shopping trip.
“Richard said you never called him.” She followed after me, earning me my second stalker of the evening. “I know he’s thinning a bit on top, but he has his own job and is really a sweetheart once you get to know him.”
What she failed to mention was that Richard was about as dependent on his mother to cook, clean, and shelter him as he was when he was a kid. I was already the mom to three boys. I sure as hell didn’t need a grown ass man I had to babysit. That wasn’t what I wanted in a partner, even if I did have time to date. Which I most noticeably didn’t.
Thankfully, Phee had promptly plucked his number off my desk at work and ran a full and, I’m sure, illegal search on the guy. So really, I had a perfectly valid reason not to call. If only I could eloquently word that without burning the one mom friend bridge I had in this city.
“That’s probably my fault, Karen,” an increasingly familiar voice chimed in, his cart noticeably absent as he walked up next to us. “I’m afraid I don’t leave Ava with too much time on her hands these days. Lovely dress, by the way.”
“Oh gosh! Wow. That would definitely explain it. You—You’re so…” She trailed off, trying to find the right words to say as I held my smile in place and tried to quiet my internal laughter. While I didn’t want Karen to think I was a raging bitch for my kids’ sake, I couldn’t care less what she thought about my dating life and me personally. “I got it from this lovely little boutique on Main Street,” she said, veering towards a much safer response. “I need to get home to my girls. It was good to see you, Ava, and it was definitely good to meet you…”
“Toby,” he finished, offering her his hand. “A pleasure to meet you as well! Have a good night!”
It wasn’t every day the person who was stalking you saved you, even if it was just from a perky PTA mom.
He waited next to me in the aisle until we could see Karen firmly loading her groceries onto the belt at the checkout line at the end of the aisle.
“Thank you, I think,” I said with a sigh, watching as those mahogany curls bounced slightly with the shifting of his feet.
“You’re welcome, Ava,” he said like he was in on some kind of secret I knew nothing about. “I know you’re not the kind of woman who needs saving, I get that sense from you. But it also looked like you were desperate for an excuse. Consider me that handsome excuse, or whatever else you want to consider me.”
“All I want to consider right now is what groceries I’m getting and maybe what coffee I’m going to treat myself to on the way home.”
“I’m not supposed to drink it, but I’d love to buy you a cup—”
“Thank you, really, but no. Chasing Karen off was more than enough. Enjoy the rest of your day,” I said cordially, cutting off the conversation. My senses still didn’t know what to make of the man.
The rest of my grocery trip went the same way, us crossing paths multiple times, my pulse skipping whenever that feeling inside my chest pulled. My mind warred between whether I should be flattered or freaked out.
Maybe I did need a night out to let my hair down, if considering creepers, no matter how gorgeous they might be, was on my radar.
“Excuse me,” I said, bypassing a customer in the aisle and catching the glimpse of those increasingly familiar curls at the end of the aisle, doing a poor job at studying a box of cereal like it had the answers to life. All the while, he subtly glanced my way.
“I’d go with the Lucky Charms,” I offered automatically as I passed by, cursing myself for engaging with him again. “They’re magically delicious and won’t destroy the roof of your mouth like the Captain will.”
“Gorgeous and smart,” he smiled, quickly adding the box to his cart, his eyes tracking me as I pushed my cart alongside to pass him.
The distinct sound of another deep inhale filled my ears, and I turned to find my super mart stalker, eyes closed and head tilted back, the serenity of his face a sight to behold.
“Okay, that’s it. We’ve got to stop meeting like this, and you’ve got to stop sniffing me,” I said, his eyes popping open as he tried to give me an innocent expression.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he denied. “Oh, are you making spaghetti too? What a coincidence, I love spaghetti! We definitely both have impeccable taste.” He gestured to his cart, where ingredients almost identical to my own lay next to his box of cereal, apples, and ice cream.
Those warning bells that were once a faint notion started sounding in my mind once more. My body said it was time to either put up or get the hell out of dodge.
“Then I hope you enjoy your meal. This is the part where you’re going to give me some space and let me finish my shopping in peace,” I said firmly. The situation was beginning to become too weird for me to ignore, and that was saying a lot.
“Okay,” he said, looking like a dejected puppy as his head dropped down and he scuffed his shoe. The fact that he had to be almost six feet tall made the action somehow kind of endearing.
“Enjoy the rest of your day,” I offered as a farewell, turning my attention back to my cart and hightailing it to check out.
“You too,” he called, sounding rather optimistic after his dismissal. “Maybe I’ll see you around sometime soon.”
His words hung ominously in the air, and I felt that cord inside me thrum to life. If the past year had taught me anything, it was that sometimes intuition could be a blessing and a curse, but it was always better to listen to it.
“Did you find everything all right?” the clerk asked robotically as they scanned and passed my groceries to the bagger.
“More than I expected,” I replied, casting glances over my shoulder, the sense of foreboding thudding through my veins. “Actually, can I get some assistance out to my car please?”
The paranoia didn’t abate as I led the teenage bagger, who probably thought I was completely extra, on a zigzag maze through the parking lot. I didn’t even bother using the key fob on my car, not wanting the lights to go off.
“Are you okay, lady?” he asked, looking at me wide-eyed as I checked the backseat and looked underneath my car.
“Thank you, bye!” I said, rushing to close my trunk and slide into my car. I peeled out of the parking lot and onto the main road, wondering what the hell had just happened.
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