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Cassie Monroe let her hair down. It fell in crumpled waves to her shoulders after having been in a tight bun for the last twelve hours. She smelled like alcohol wipes and sweat, and was dying for a long hot shower and a chance to burn the scrubs she’d had on all day. Just as she was about to clear the door of the neonatal intensive care unit where she worked, the unit secretary called her name.
“Got something for you.”
Cassie scratched at her scalp to loosen her curls as she came face-to-face with the most spectacular flower arrangement. Lilies, roses, and dahlias galore.
“I figure it’s from those TV people,” Taylor, the secretary, said. “They want you bad, girl.”
Cassie plucked out the card as Taylor held the arrangement for her.
“Aw…” Cassie’s expression relaxed as she read the sweet words.
Mason is thriving at home. Last month he gained four pounds and breastfeeding is going better than we could have expected. We will never forget your kindness and patience with us during the hardest four weeks of our life. Nurses are angels, and you will always be ours.
Jessica, David, and Mason Hardy
“It’s from a family we discharged last month. Gift card, too!” Cassie examined the fifty-dollar massage gift card tucked into the envelope.
“They were sweet.” Now the struggle would be how the hell to get that large floral arrangement home. Taylor passed it over to her as Cassie juggled her backpack, water bottle, and lunch bag.
“You want help down to your car?” Taylor asked.
“I think I can make it. Why haven’t you clocked out yet?”
“Bailey’s running late. I said I’d cover until she got here.”
“Sounds like you could use a massage.” Cassie left the gift card on Taylor’s desk.
“The unsung hero of our unit. You deserve some swag, too.”
Taylor grinned. “Are you back tomorrow?”
“No, not for a couple days.”
“Well, thank you, and we’ll see you then.”
“Have a good night.”
“You, too, Cass.”
Cassie left the NICU with a smile, managing the flowers and her water bottle like a champ for the walk down the hall and the elevator ride to the parking garage. But once there, her smile faded quickly.
From the Eiffel Tower and the Luxembourg Gardens to this. Reality. Three minutes after she’d been close to cloud nine and patting herself on the back for a job well done, Cassie found herself on her knees in the hospital parking garage, checking the pressure of her worryingly deflated rear driver’s side tire.
She relaxed slightly. Better than nothing.
Cassie stood up and brushed the dirt from her scrub pants. She managed to secure the gorgeous flower arrangement in the passenger seat and was just coming around the car to let herself in when male laughter from nearby caused the hairs on the back of her neck to rise. Scottsdale after dark in the winter got chilly, but that wasn’t the cause. That particular laugh worked her nerves like no other.
Cassie spotted her trigger a few rows away. Two anesthesiologists walk into a parking garage…
Cassie wasn’t in the mood. She’d had a long shift, plans for a quiet Friday night with her roommate where many exciting things would be discussed, and her tire had enough pressure to get her home. Being judged at a distance by Dr. Nick Morgan wasn’t on her to-do list. But his pristine Jeep was parked directly opposite her old car.
As his colleague walked on, Nick got to his door at the same time Cassie managed to yank hers open. It took longer than she would have preferred because the handle didn’t work the way it used to. Normally, she had a trick to spring it loose, a certain amount of pressure she applied to the left. But in her haste to escape his notice, she forgot to do the thing…
And then she caught his derisive snicker.
Unable to ignore it, she slid a glare his way.
“Your tire’s low.”
Cassie searched her brain for the exact right cutting phrase he so desperately deserved, but her mind was already engaged in its usual grappling game that happened whenever she crossed paths with her nemesis. “How much do I owe you for the consultation, Doctor?”
The smirk growing on his face was as fake and forced as his earlier laugh. Cassie knew better than anyone his sense of humor veered toward open ridicule.
If her personality were any less stubborn, growing up with him would have given her the self-esteem of a cornered bunny rabbit. His judgment coupled with her mother’s criticism for the majority of her life should have meant a therapy bill even Elon Musk would gulp at. Ever since their moms took up together in their divorce support group and decided to practically raise their children with each other, Cassie and Nick had gone from awkward tweens who had no idea how to talk to each other beyond commiserating smiles and trading the occasional playlist to teen enemies who held nasty grudges. To think, she used to think of him as a safe space. Now all she saw when she looked at him was a red neon sign flashing “Danger Zone.”
Neither had moved past their differences like mature adults.
Though they were rarely subjected to each other’s presence anymore—Easter brunch, the occasional birthday dinner, and random run-ins at the hospital every few months or so—Nick’s continued existence, even on the fringes of Cassie’s life, annoyed her.
Since their moms were still the best of friends, there was no end in sight.
Unfortunately, his snide personality was only one half of the Dr. Morgan mind fuck. He also happened to be ridiculously hot. Even unisex scrubs couldn’t hide the lift of his well-worked-out ass or his strong quads. Arms always on display, the prominent veins in his tanned forearms never failed to capture Cassie’s imagination. The lean muscles beneath them called out to be stroked. Broad shoulders and perfect-ten pectorals filled out the top half of his powder-blue outfit. And while not all MDs could rock a close-fitting surgical cap, Nick Morgan could. The sandy brown curls of his stylishly shaggy hair peeking out the back consistently confused Cassie’s reality.
She shouldn’t have spoken to him, much less posed a question. Engaging with him would only challenge an ego that was already far too big. Now that she had her car door open, she should take advantage of the opportunity to go.
“You’re actually planning to drive on that?” he asked as he did the doubly obnoxious thing of crossing his arms and leaning a shoulder against his expensive four-wheel-drive Jeep. How someone that smug could look so sexy was a mystery.
“What can I say? I’m wild that way.”
“It’s not safe,” he blurted as she was about to slide into the driver’s seat.
She froze behind her car door, using it like a shield to deflect whatever compulsive truth bomb he felt necessary to hurl her way. Nick wasn’t just pompous. He was also uptight, anal-retentive, and convinced of his own superiority. He was never wrong. And he was super, super sensitive about vehicular safety.
She poked the bear. “You should see the spare—that would really get your danger juices flowing.”
His brown eyes flared wide, but he quickly narrowed them into a glare. “I’ll follow you home.”
Cassie jerked like he’d thrown a ball at her head. “Did I miss the part where I asked for your help?”
“You’re too stubborn to ask for help.”
“And you’re too arrogant to realize no one needs you.”
He gave her a look of pure disgust and yanked open his own car door. “Just get in the car and drive,” he shouted.
“No means no, Nick. Don’t they teach you that in your annual trainings?”
His brown eyes frosted over as he stared across the barrier at her. “Wasn’t aware you knew that word, Cass.”
He was so fucking lucky she wasn’t into making scenes. “Screw you, Nick. No one needs your help.”
“Have it your way,” he sneered. “But good luck getting home—you’ll need it.”
“You wish!” she shouted at him as he slammed his door. Not her best retort, but she needed something he could lip-read while he revved his loud, powerful engine.
Her own engine gave her some trouble, not turning over until the third twist of her key. But the old girl did start, which was more than she could say for some days. She gave it a chance to warm up before attempting to put it in gear. She also wanted Nick as far away as possible. She swore to God, if she saw anyone following her home, she’d call the cops. That would teach him.
Deep breaths, Cass. She needed to focus to navigate the ten-minute drive on side roads safely. It wasn’t like he was wrong about the state of her car. Didn’t take a medical expert to diagnose a lemon.
While the Miata idled, she checked her messages to remind herself she had a life that had nothing to do with Nick, or her car, or this town.
A life with big plans.
Kat Kramer had sent her an email.
Contract signing is set for two p.m. Monday here at the LA offices. Attached is your hotel reservation and a copy of the contract. Still waiting on your final Panel selection, so please be in touch if you’ve settled on your picks so we can reach out to everyone.
We’re all looking forward to a great season. Matt and I have some fun surprises when you get here!
The now familiar mix of excitement and anxiety swirled through Cassie’s insides as she darkened the screen of her phone and muscled her car into reverse. She loved the idea of staying at the swanky Sunset Strip hotel again, but really? They couldn’t throw in a flight with the “Emergency Contract Signing” package? She’d have a word with Kat about expenses once she made it to L.A.
If Matched were like most reality relationship shows, the decision to come back as the star would have been easy. Instead she’d hesitated for the last several weeks as the producers courted her with incentives and hints at the incredible men who’d applied to vie for a chance at a future with her. When Kat and Matt had visited her hometown, they’d wined and dined her in an effort to get her all pumped up for a future she definitely wanted, but wasn’t sure she could make happen.
Not without the requisite “Panel” of people willing to go on the journey with her.
Her best friend, her biggest cheerleader, and the most optimistic person on the planet, Violet, convinced Cassie a Panel would be a snap to put together at the last minute, but since bringing her mother along was absolutely out of the question, she’d really been counting on her dad.
Unfortunately, he’d already planned and paid for a backpacking tour of Europe with his third wife for almost the exact same weeks as filming was scheduled to take place.
Violet, of course, had volunteered to head up the Panel, but Violet’s employers wouldn’t exactly take kindly to having a junior attorney take a twelve-week leave of absence to be on TV. Matched’s compensation for official Panel members was good, but it wasn’t near what Violet made at the law firm. Cassie tamped down her nerves. They’d figure something out. They always did.
Violet filled both their wineglasses while she assessed Cassie’s wardrobe from inside her walk-in closet. “Stop worrying about my job. There’s no way I’m letting you find your life mate without me. There are plenty of other law firms in the world. And it’s not like being on TV won’t look fun on my CV.”
“Maybe I should ask Elliot.” Cassie snorted a laugh at her own suggestion. Last season’s star probably felt bad enough about the outcome of his show to actually do it. His affair with one of the producers had tanked any contestant’s chance of winding up with him at the end, but Cassie had been particularly humiliated since she’d been the one to discover his secret.
Elliot was a good man though, and he’d never led any of the contestants on in a cruel way. He’d even approached Cassie with the truth and asked her to go with him to the end as friends, just so he could fulfill his contract and be with the woman he really loved once it was all said and done. But the producers had other plans for Cassie, and she’d wound up in the Luxembourg Gardens getting blindsided on national television when Elliot’s Panel sent her packing.
Unbeknownst to her (and Elliot), the remaining field producers, Kat and Matt, had made a plan to create sympathy—a fan favorite America would rally behind and tune in to watch next season while she embarked on her own journey to find her happy ending. That fan favorite ended up being Cassie.
Violet constantly reminded her that being offered the starring role was not just any consolation prize, but the opportunity of a lifetime. Except Cassie’s three-member Panel so far consisted of exactly Violet, Violet, and Violet.
Her best friend certainly had enough personality to do it on her own, but the producers insisted on the traditional format. The Panel was what distinguished Matched from reality shows where love and lust determined the winner. On Matched, the star was always accompanied by a three-member Panel of loved ones who guided the decision-making process along with the show’s uber-popular relationship expert Dr. Lavonne Woods. In essence, the ten out of twelve successful marriages to come out of the show were “arranged.” Because Matched had been so successful with their format, they even went so far as to guarantee the happy ending for the star.
“Let’s make a list of everyone we know, and your entire family, and we’ll whittle it down,” Violet said.
“It’s such short notice…”
“It’s not that short. Four weeks is more than enough time to get a few ducks in a row. Besides, I have faith that those producers of yours could convince anybody to do anything.”
Kat and Matt were definitely a force. If they could deliver the epic fairy tale they’d promised Cassie, this would definitely be a fun ride. Going on Matched initially had been a lark. Every year or so Cassie got burned out on her job, gave up on dating, and needed a break from reality. Normally, she’d go to the beach for a week to regroup, but Violet talked her into Matched. She hadn’t expected to hit it off so well with Elliot Hale, but they’d clicked night one. He hadn’t seemed like he wanted some big passionate love affair; he seemed like he was casually looking for a life mate. Someone to chill and have fun with, someone to raise a couple kids with and throw great barbecues. They both liked to laugh, they both liked sports, he was hot, she wasn’t so bad to look at—they could have had a fun life. Turned out he was looking for the mad passion though, and he’d found it with Ginger, the lead field producer, behind the scenes.
Easy come, easy go.
But Cassie saw the potential in the process, and Kat and Matt assured her it would work for her. Dating in the real world had yielded dud after dud, and more than her fair share of unsolicited dick pics. Was she afraid Matched wouldn’t work out? That she’d fall flat on her face? Of course. It wouldn’t have been the first (nor would it be the last time) she’d fail to impress someone, or all of America, with who she really was. But, like Violet, the producers saw something in her—a star quality, she supposed, and she was ready to take a leap of faith. Problem was, this leap required some spotters, and so far, Cassie only had the one.
She and Violet took their wine onto the balcony, wrapped themselves in blankets, and started their list. “Will and Marcus,” Violet began.
“Marcus is in Toronto for work all of February. They’re both going.”
“Ugh. Right. Name me some aunts.”
“My aunts barely know me.”
“Co-workers?” Violet asked.
“Simone was the one I was closest to, and she’s in New York now. Traveling. And I highly doubt they’ll let anyone from our unit take a concurrent leave along with me. We just don’t have the staff for it.”
“You’re sure your dad’s out?”
Violet bit the end of her pen. “I’m starting to feel bad for being such a jealous, possessive friend. Maybe I should have let you spread your wings more. Experiment with other people.”
Cassie glanced Violet’s way. Jealous and possessive were not the words Cassie would use to describe her best friend. Exuberant. Extra. Diabolically funny. Wickedly smart. Double-dimpled just like Cassie, her curvy friend left hot men panting in her wake and had other women constantly asking her advice on anything from what neighborhood to live in to how to seduce a hot junior partner. Violet was the most charismatic person Cassie had ever met, and it was a total mystery what she saw in her, but if nothing else, Cassie could always be herself around Violet, and that was more than she could say for the rest of the planet.
“No thanks. I’ve got my hands full with you.”
“Any bored, well-meaning neighbors?”
Cassie snort-laughed. “I can try hanging up a flyer up in the lobby.”
“What about my mom?”
Cassie considered it. “I mean, she’s known me a long time… I just feel like…”
“Like it would be a big middle finger to my mom.”
“Yeah…but…do we care?”
Cassie stared down into the remains of her wine. “No…yeah…”
“’Cause I know she’d do it.”
Cassie tried to smile, but that old familiar wound in her heart throbbed. Her relationship with her mother was a sore spot. It had been ever since Cassie announced at age thirteen she wanted to be a nurse.
Ellen Monroe had responded while looking down her nose. “Nick’s planning on med school.”
And thirteen-year-old Nick had been right there with them at the dinner table at the time to say, in the pompous way only teenage boys can manage, “Have fun cleaning bedpans.”
Cassie hadn’t known enough about nursing at the time to be able to tell him how wrong that stereotype was, but she figured he’d discovered the truth by now. Back then, though, she’d only felt determined to prove them all wrong. She’d made a nice career for herself, but her mother seemed to make it a point to never ask about her job. Like having a nurse for a daughter was still some blight on their family. Cassie even kept a note on her phone of how many lives she’d had a hand in saving, just so that, if it ever came up at a party, she could hold it up and compare it to Nick’s number. She was a hundred-percent sure her score would slay his.
“I was supposed to go to my mom’s house tonight,” Cassie told Violet. “She’s been having the maids do some New Year’s cleaning. She said she’s got four or five boxes of my stuff.”
“That could be fun to go through.”
“You’re missing the point.”
“I was avoiding it actually,” Violet said. “Same way you currently are by sharing a bottle of wine with me.”
“I’ll go tomorrow. I’m off for the next few days. It’ll give me processing time.”
“And—time to make a new friend who has a flexible schedule and your best interests at heart?”
Cassie snorted. “Sure. Yeah. That too.”
“We’ll figure this out, Cassmaster. I promise. You’re doing this show. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you know how I feel about those.”
“YOLO,” Cassie said.
“Exactly. Also, it may be my only chance to reach a national audience and my full potential.”
“In that case, who am I to hold you back?”
Violet winked. “You’re finally starting to get it.”
End of Excerpt