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Kat Kramer sank the eight ball in the middle pocket, leaving her friend with six stripes on the table. Ginger was hopeless at pool, and honestly, she needed an attitude adjustment. “You can’t possibly think of weddings like that.”
Ginger twirled her pool cue in her hand. The two-carat rock on her left ring finger caught the light, creating an enviable glint. But according to her, planning her wedding was as romantic as trying to open a pop-up restaurant. “How would you like me to think of it?” she asked.
“You get to be queen for a day,” Kat said. “Or at least, like—you know—a princess.”
“Why would I want to be a princess?”
The bar in Echo Park was not half as packed as usual for a trivia night. And the vibe felt less like hooking up than catching up. The night before Thanksgiving had brought out brothers and sisters, cousins, out-of-town friends, and—in their case—co-workers, a former co-worker, and reality star Elliot Hale, Ginger’s infamous fiancé.
“Why wouldn’t you want to be a princess?” Kat asked. Ginger was no-frills for sure, but surely she’d played dress-up as a kid. Kat couldn’t be the only one at the pool table who’d pondered the age-old question—can I pull off an all-satin gown? But she’d always gravitated more toward lace.
Ginger snorted as she returned her pool cue to the rack. “It’s just one day. You wear a dress, make a few promises, and have a party. Why does it need to have a color scheme?”
Kat glanced over her shoulder at their friend Matt for some support. Her longtime co-worker stroked his beard as he stared down at his phone, but he glanced up now—that slow glance up with one dark eyebrow arched that put Kat in serious danger of drooling. “What?” he asked, like he hadn’t been listening.
He was the wrong person to enlist in this crusade. He’d probably tell Ginger and Elliot to wear prison stripes to the ceremony and acknowledge the vows for the traps they were. After six years of working side by side, and through his divorce, Kat was clear where he stood on the institution.
“We can’t have you getting married at some justice of the peace in yoga pants. So think up a color scheme and wear something pretty. The show needs the photos,” Kat said. Matched was in enough trouble as it was, both with the network and the audience. Besides, Ginger owed Kat. Big-time.
“Kat’s right,” Matt mumbled, his attention back on his phone.
Ginger scowled at him. “You always say that.”
“She makes good points.”
Kat damn near glowed from Matt’s show of support. As downplayed as it was, from him, it was as good as a parade in her honor.
The love of Ginger’s life, last season’s star Elliot Hale, slung an arm across Ginger’s shoulders and pressed a smacking kiss to the top of her head. “No worries,” he said with the smile that charmed a nation and hooked her commitment-phobic best friend so hard she’d risked her career to be with him. “The pictures will be stunning.”
Matt shoved off from the wall, picked up a pool cue, pocketed his phone and chalked the tip. It was his turn to play the winner. “You racking?” he asked Kat.
Kat gathered the balls and rolled them onto the table. Ginger grabbed Elliot and signaled they’d be back with another round. The two of them were heading to Chicago on an early flight to spend Thanksgiving with Elliot’s family. Already they’d celebrated twice—once last Saturday at Ginger’s sister’s place in San Francisco—a Friendsgiving Kat and Matt had both attended, then Sunday at Ginger’s parents’ house, and now they were off to their third.
Ginger handled it well, this new social life she’d found since she and Elliot stunned the world with their surprise ending on the popular reality show where she, Kat, and Matt used to work together as field producers. No one had seen it coming when Elliot, the star, fell for one of the producers instead of one of his intended matches, but here they were, and they’d weathered the storm of public outrage, coming out even stronger than they’d started.
The same could not be said for Matched itself. The network and the team had been working overtime doing damage control. But now—unlike Kat—Ginger had a life. A person. A home with the man she loved.
Matt won the lag, so he got into position to break. Bending over the table with a straight back, he leaned into his rear hip. Kat was physically unable to stop herself from checking out his ass. The year since his divorce had been rocky for him, but over the last few months she couldn’t help but notice he’d started putting himself back together, and his body was in the best shape she’d ever seen it.
It had never been his body that made her heart race, though. It had always been his smile. The first time she’d seen his face break into a grin she’d been a goner—hopelessly crushing on a man with a wife. Now that he was finally recovering from his divorce, however, Kat was so far in the friend zone she was surprised she didn’t have to holler across the distance to make herself heard.
After six years as co-workers, and absolutely no indication from him that he even knew how to flirt, it should be easier to stand on the receiving end of one of Matt Corrado’s gorgeous grins, but they still made her heart stop. His large, deep-set brown eyes were of the devastatingly beautiful variety, and when they focused fully on her, it made her body behave in dangerous and inappropriate ways. Crushes killed, and this crush was relentless. And now with this body—
Enough, she reminded herself. You have a boyfriend. You’re fine.
She was fine. Totally. Jamie, the cameraman she’d been seeing, was sleeping over more often, mentioning places they might consider for a weekend getaway, and hell, this morning he’d practically made her breakfast after she’d woken him up with a fun hand job. She’d only had an apple and some stale bread in her kitchen, though, so he’d given her a rain check before leaving to take his own trip home for the holiday. But she was fine. Things were moving in a positive direction. After all—it had been almost six months since they first hooked up in Paris during Elliot’s season. Already the shelf life of this relationship had far surpassed any she’d had since the one she wasn’t allowed to talk about around Ginger.
Matt sank a solid on the break and stood straight to survey the table. On his way up he made a slight groaning sound with a hand on his lower back. Kat made a show of noticing. “You need me to ask if they have a walker in the storeroom?”
He shot her a dark look. Instead of intimidating her, it made her brain sort of buzzy for a second. “I played football in college,” he said.
“Did you?” He mentioned this often.
“I have some old injuries.”
“So definitely not arthritis then?”
Matt hated being the oldest of their group, but Kat loved to tease him about it.
Ginger and Elliot returned with fresh beers for everyone. “Trivia starts in half an hour. I signed us up. It’s pop culture, 90s to now, so we should dominate with Matt on our team.”
Kat snickered. Ginger rarely missed an opportunity to make an age dig either.
As if in revenge, Matt sank four more solids in quick succession before narrowly missing the green in a corner pocket and gesturing for Kat to take her best shot. She needed him to step out of the way to aim where she wanted, but he wouldn’t budge. “You’ve got better shots than that,” he said.
“I want this one,” she insisted. Kat bumped him with her hip and he took a step away. She leaned in to aim, trying to make her ass as unavoidable to look at as he had. She checked to see whether he’d noticed, but he was staring at his phone again.
Why did she even bother? If he hadn’t made a move after all the time they’d spent together since his divorce was finalized, why would tonight be any different? Clearly, he wasn’t into her.
She took her shot and missed. Ginger got a kick out of it, but Matt didn’t look up from his phone. Kat took down half her beer in one gulp. “What are you doing?” She turned on him. “Are you texting? Online dating? What’s got you so preoccupied?” Okay, maybe she should have stopped after the first three beers.
“Emily,” he mumbled.
Emily was his daughter. That much, everyone knew. They were all friends here. Kat and Matt weren’t besties like she and Ginger were, but the endless hours they’d logged as co-workers had made them a great team, on and off set. Matt had never been shy about offering a shoulder or lending an ear, but it struck her now that she had very little idea what his life was all about when he wasn’t at work.
Suddenly she had a lot of questions. Hands on her hips, she squared off with him.
“It’s eleven p.m. Shouldn’t she be asleep?”
He gave her a disbelieving blink like he didn’t even know where to begin. “Are you serious?”
“You’re not drunk-texting your ex, are you?” Kat asked.
Finally, he pocketed his phone and gave her his full attention. “Number one, this is only my second beer. Number two—I have better things to do.”
“Like what? What exactly do you do when you’re out of my line of sight?” she asked. “Who do you hang with? You have hobbies I don’t know about?”
He moved past her to set up his next shot. “Yes, Kat. I do continue to exist outside your field of vision.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and squinted at him. “In what way?”
“What’s got you so curious all of a sudden?”
“This is not my second beer,” Kat responded, lifting her glass and taking another sip.
His eyebrows lifted like he’d just had a great idea, then his gaze went all sharp and direct. “You know what a Venn diagram is?”
“Then picture it—here’s my circle—we’ll call it the Matt circle.” He inscribed a giant circle in the air between them. “Here’s the Kat circle.”
While she loved a good mansplain as much as the next girl, Kat frowned at his air-drawing as it became clear how much of their lives he considered to intersect. It wasn’t a lot. A tiny little area that could have been enclosed by two parentheses without a space between them.
If she’d drawn the same diagram, she’d have done it a little differently. “Ouch,” she said.
If Kat had her way, those circles would look like a complete eclipse. She did her best to stick to the subject and not the raging insecurity his demonstration kicked up. Ignoring his question, she asked her own. “So what all’s in that Matt circle I’ve never glimpsed before?”
“Well, let’s see. There’s Emily. There are my friends you’ve never met—the ones from college—even a few from elementary school. My family. There’s my marriage, which had a beginning and a middle before you and I ever crossed paths. There’s my hobbies—”
“So you do have hobbies.” Seemed like a safer topic than the marriage he’d never said a single nice thing about, though he and his ex talked at least once a week.
“A few,” he said.
“Like what? What’s your thing? What do you like to do to unwind after a long week filming other people fighting to find their happy endings?”
For a second she thought he’d dodge the question, but then he stated simply, “Boats.”
“I like boats.”
“Like sailboats?” she asked.
He gave his beard a thoughtful stroke. “Most boats.”
“Do you have a boat?” She’d like to go on his boat.
“I’m working on it. I’ve been taking lessons. Couple of friends have some boats they’ve let me use for a day or two.”
Kat was totally picturing this: his exposed forearms all flexed and tan while he manipulated a sail. “Why didn’t I know that?”
He only shrugged in response. She did her best not to make it mean anything.
“Personally, I’m not a fan of being out on the open water like that. Unless it’s like—on a cruise,” she said.
Matt lined up his next shot and said, “You know, one of these days I’ll talk Marlon into shutting down the Hacienda for a season and get him to do the show on a big yacht. But we’d need to find a ship’s captain or someone to star. Make it relevant.”
The iconic Hacienda in Camarillo, California, had served as the backdrop for Matched since the show’s debut. The idea of filming anywhere else was easily dismissed, but Matt was always good at bringing the conversation back around to work. “That’s a decent idea. For a different kind of show, obviously.”
“It doesn’t have to be different.”
“With everybody in close quarters like that?” She snorted a laugh. “We’d never be able to keep them all from having sex with each other. We’d lose what’s left of our sponsors.” Matched was meant to be about compatibility, not chemistry. While the producers found they could never control any sparks once they ignited, it was still their job to keep the star and the contestants on the straight and narrow path to their semi-arranged marriage. Present company obviously excluded.
Elliot and Ginger were chemistry incarnate in the dark corner next to the pool cues, making out in plain sight. Any second now they’d say—
“I think we’re gonna take off.”
Elliot was the one who came up for air long enough to state the obvious—it was time for them to get a room.
“You guys drive safe.” Matt shook Elliot’s hand before giving Ginger one of his big bear hugs. Ginger never liked hugs much before Elliot; now she was almost squishy with her demonstrations of affection. Almost.
The hug she gave Kat was more awkward, but probably due to Kat’s height and general gangliness. She blamed herself for not being able to make hugs with women work. Actually, no. She blamed her mother.
“I’ll call you when we get home,” Ginger said. “You’re going to Scottsdale for Thanksgiving, right?”
Had Kat told her that? “Totally, yeah,” she lied.
“Okay, well, drive safe. Have fun. Eat tons.”
“Will do.” Kat tried to ignore the fact that Matt was scowling at her while she hugged Elliot goodbye.
“You’re driving to Scottsdale tomorrow?” Matt asked once Ginger and Elliot left the bar, his skepticism totally justified since they’d made plans to meet in the office on Friday to try and solve the mounting problems at Matched, including, but not limited to, getting next season’s preferred star to sign the damn contract.
“I must’ve told her I was thinking about it.” She gestured at the pool table. “Are you gonna take your shot or what?”
“So, are you?” he asked.
“No. I changed my mind.”
“Then what are you doing tomorrow?”
With her boyfriend headed out of town and no family in the area, Kat’s plans for Thanksgiving included sleeping in, maybe a walk on the nearby beach, Chinese takeout, and binging the new Netflix series everyone was talking about at the office. She was actually looking forward to it. She’d bought snacks and new pjs. “Oh, I have big plans. Make a choice, Corrado. Are we finishing this pool game or are we doing trivia? Your call.”
The lingering look he gave her then melted something inside her. Not because she was hard and frozen, but because sometimes, without even trying to, he could be so fucking hot.
She had to get over this stupid crush. Any second it would kill her.
Baby steps, she reminded herself as he positioned himself to take his shot. It wasn’t like she’d been lonely lately.
While Jamie wasn’t exactly the beacon of stability or responsibility she was hoping to land for the long haul, he was a genuinely good guy with tons of potential, and she refused to count him out as a possibility just because she didn’t get butterflies every time she saw him.
Jamie was basic in most things, including bed, but Kat found she didn’t have that high of a bar for being sexually compatible with someone. The right part in the right place tended to do the trick regardless of skill level. Did that make her easy?
Kat shook off the thought. No need to question herself when things were actually going well for once. Handily, Matt the pool shark ran the table and won the game. “Satisfied?” he asked.
Not by half, she thought. “I think I’ll try my luck with trivia.”
They found an unoccupied booth, both phones on the table, and immediately slipped into a conversation about work. Yesterday they’d had another long, rambling phone call with Cassie Monroe where she still wouldn’t give a firm yes or no. As she was their front-runner of choice to star in next season, her delay put them in a bind.
“We could always put out a casting call,” Kat said.
“Filming starts in February,” Matt reminded her. “It’d be a terrible crunch. And a huge risk to bring in someone completely new. Marlon would…” He shook his head and shut his mouth.
Because of Ginger and Elliot’s unprecedented rule-breaking last season and Kat’s Hail Mary attempt to save the show, the network was concerned the end was near for Matched. While the terms of everyone’s technical contracts had been fulfilled, they’d definitely broken the most important one—their unspoken contract with the audience.
No one wanted to see the show become an object of ridicule. But come on, it was a show about relationships—sometimes things got messy. “We need a reset,” Kat said. “Whether it’s with Cassie or someone new. Maybe a new intro—like a rebrand—”
Matt’s phone dinged again, and he picked it up to look at it.
“Seriously,” Kat said. “Who keeps texting you?”
“Emily,” he said again.
Kat sighed loudly enough that he slid her an annoyed glance.
“We can talk, you know?” she said. “We’ve had actual conversations in the past, unless those were all super forgettable.”
“We’re talking right now,” he said dismissively.
“We’ve barely seen each other outside of work since Paris.” She’d practically had to drag him to San Francisco for Friendsgiving last week, and he’d been on the phone half the time there, too—also dealing with Emily’s latest teen drama.
“You’ve seemed busy. I assumed…” He let his words trail off, but she refused to let him off the hook.
He shrugged a shoulder. “Assumed you’ve been busy.”
Her phone dinged with a text, and he gestured knowingly, like the ping was all the proof he needed that his vague suspicions were right on target. “Who’s texting you so late?”
With his attention back on his own dinging phone, it made his question seem rhetorical.
Delighted to see a text from Jamie—was he missing her already?—Kat read his message. Her excitement lowered by several degrees.
Great news! Got a job offer. Full-time. CNN! Moving to D.C. next week! Let’s get together to celebrate.
Kat was officially distracted. Her boyfriend was moving to D.C. next week, and he’d decided this was the way to break the news? At nearly midnight? Via text? Was she being dumped?
Reacting on pure instinct, she typed before she even had a chance to process the emotions flying all over the place in her body.
Were you not planning to discuss this with me at all? I didn’t even know you had an interview. When did this happen?
Matt’s phone dinged again.
Jamie didn’t respond right away as Kat started intently at her phone. Over the next several seconds, her initial irritation turned to uncertainty. This couldn’t be happening. It had to be a misunderstanding. Except, his text had been clear as day. Jamie was leaving L.A.
When no new words appeared on her screen, like a brick just hit her, a heavy sense of betrayal settled on her shoulders. Her next text was visceral, raw, and totally intended to make Jamie realize what a total dick move this was.
I mean was it before or after I gave you a hand job this morning?
Matt’s phone dinged again.
Kat snapped. “Do you need to go or something? What does she want?”
Matt gave her an incredulous look, like she’d just offered him a hand job. “Kat—I should let you know—”
Her phone finally dinged, but it was a text from another thread—still from Jamie, but—
Oh dear God. Oh no.
Kat backed through her texting app and noticed with pure horror that not only had Jamie dumped her in a text, but he’d done it in a group text.
And now he was responding individually to the hand job question in their private, separate thread.
Don’t be mad, babe. This is great news for me. You know I’m sick of freelancing.
Kat could barely think. Her eyes stung with hot tears, but they weren’t for Jamie—she’d never been so embarrassed.
And between you and me, this morning was the best, babe. You’ve been great. Will def miss our wild nights when I’m in D.C.
All the beer she’d consumed sloshed through her stomach, building a wave of nausea that sent bile straight up her esophagus. Wild nights? Was that all she’d been to him? Had every moment she’d tried to read meaning into been nothing more than her own desperate imagination?
“I need to get out of here,” she said.
Matt was incredibly quick to respond. “Let me get the tab—”
“I need to go now.” She stood from the booth, head spinning, guts churning, and stormed out of the bar while putting a call through to the asshole directly.
“Hey, babe,” was how Jamie answered.
Her boots pounded the sidewalk as she headed in the direction of Matt’s car. A light drizzle fell, and she didn’t even get a chance to appreciate the novelty of it because she was so pissed. “Stop fucking calling me that. You just dumped me in a group text.”
“All I did was say I’m moving to D.C.”
“We’ve been seeing each other for six months—” The second the words left her mouth she realized what an idiot she’d been. They hadn’t been “seeing each other.”
“I mean we hooked up—”
The confirmation had Kat practically gasping for air. If she hadn’t been drinking, she probably could have kept the next words from coming out of her mouth, but the alcohol was doing its job to cement her pathetic ex status. “I thought you liked me.”
“Babe, I do like you.”
“I swear to God, if you call me babe one more time, I’ll scream.”
He lowered his voice. “Look…I’m sorry, I just assumed casual was your M.O.”
What? Where the hell had he gotten that idea? Did people say that about her? Her throat tightened, making her voice psychotically shrill. “Who told you that?”
“No one specifically, but I mean…with Marlon, and Jeff from accounting and Matt—”
“Matt?” That did it. She was officially freaking out.
“You hook up, right?”
“No!” And the thought of it—that people thought that—pissed her off even more. “I thought Marlon was in love with me. And Jeff—he cornered me in the women’s bathroom one day and tried to feel me up—that’s why he got fired.”
“You thought I was just the office slut?”
“No, I…” And then he hesitated. “Well…”
Every ounce of decorum inside her evaporated. She snapped. “You are such a piece of shit!”
It wasn’t like she was ever in love with him, so that wasn’t why tears were streaming down her face, but she had literally never felt so humiliated. Even after Marlon dumped her. She’d at least seen that coming, what with him being technically married and all, even though she’d certainly hoped for a different outcome.
But this was a new low. Being dumped by an out-of-shape freelance cameraman who basically implied she was widely considered the company lay of the week.
Matt caught up to her at his car. She hung up the phone and wiped her eyes. She held her phone out for him to take. “Don’t give it back to me until I calm down.”
He pocketed it and gave her a second to wipe the tears and rain from her face.
She gave herself a tight hug, finally noticing how much the temperature had dropped.
“So…” Matt began… “Guess you know that was a group text.”
It was deeply, painfully obvious in that moment that she and Jamie had been the ones blowing up Matt’s phone at the table. The humiliation felt endless.
She squeezed her eyes shut. “Don’t say I told you so.”
“It’s hard,” he admitted.
“I’d like to think we’re at least sort of friends.”
“We don’t have to talk about it,” he offered.
“But if you need a hug…”
Hugging Matt would send her straight over the edge. It would be the exclamation point on her heartbreak. One more thing you’ll never, ever have.
“I’ll take a rain check.”
“Why don’t you let me drive you home?”
“It’s totally out of your way,” she said.
“Kat, come on. You know I don’t mind.”
Over the next hour as they got stuck in traffic trying to make it across L.A. to the Palisades, Kat stewed in silence, caving to every negative thought she’d ever had about herself. The main one?
She’d never be enough.
She certainly hadn’t been enough to keep her dad alive. She wasn’t enough to keep her mom interested in being a mom. She wasn’t enough to get Marlon to leave his wife for good, and she would never be enough for Matt to even consider freeing her from the “friend zone.” She wasn’t even good enough to be dumped in person.
Just because she kept lowering her own standards didn’t mean the men she cared about would.
Obviously there was something wrong with her, and as the miles inched past, and her thoughts spiraled into bleaker and bleaker territory, she came to the conclusion that if she couldn’t pinpoint what she was doing wrong, she might never find a match of her own.
End of Excerpt