The Dating Contract

by

Stacey Agdern

Sports Agent Leah Nachman is knee deep in her sister’s wedding drama and inches away from her biggest career goal when she runs into the high school boyfriend who broke her heart. The last thing she needs is another confrontation with the man too many people are convinced is her bashert.  But perhaps he can be of use. After all, she’s totally over him. Right?

Sofer and Comic Letterer Samuel Levine is at a professional crossroads when he runs into what he believes is a fated second chance. He hasn’t seen Leah in ages, but the guilt over how they broke up still eats at him. When Leah proposes a fake ‘dating contract’ to help her make partner at her agency, and thwart her sister’s matchmaking,  Samuel agrees. His goal is forgiveness, after all.

But the more time they spend together as ‘plus ones,’ the more like fate the dates feel. Leah is convinced love and ambition can’t co-exist and Samuel’s convinced he’s losing her. Will they let their dating contract expire or give love another chance?

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Chapter One

The bright sunlight of a June morning reflected against the large expanse of the Manhattan convention center. The building, as per usual during a convention, was wrapped in signs and draped in lights.

But this was different.

This time, the signs and the lights all said, ‘The New York Wedding Extravaganza’ and all of it—the building, the signs, the lights and the convention it signified—was the bane of Leah Nachman’s existence.

She didn’t have a problem with weddings so to speak. What she did have a problem with, was the vibe emanating from the building she was about to enter. Even the air in the parking lot was nervous, excited, high-strung and tied so tightly she could barely breathe.

Not to mention the sheer numbers of people preparing to fill the facility, packed so closely she could barely lift an arm to adjust her sunglasses. And they were all dressed in various shades of white and pink and black and blue, bright enough to burn her eyeballs behind her sunglasses.

Only for her beloved older sister would Leah brave this disaster. “Why, again, isn’t Naomi here?”

Her sister lifted her gaze from the engagement ring occupying real estate on her left hand. “She’s not just our cousin, she’s a paid event planner working with clients who aren’t us. And she figured, as my sister and maid of honor, that you’d be able to walk me through my agenda.”

The agenda.

Settled into a three-hole blue ombré plastic binder were thick stapled packets filled with maps, schedules and notes about the vendors that only a project manager, like her sister, would love.

“So,” Judith continued, touching her phone screen before lifting it up so Leah could see it. “You have an email now with calendar entries and their corresponding alarms that will go off for events I want to see if possible.”

Leah’s phone confirmed the receipt of the email with a buzz. “Got it,” she said, aware the agenda had also found its way onto her phone.

For a second, Judith looked up, and Leah could see a question in her sister’s eyes. “Fine?”

Leah knew that no matter what she said, Judith wouldn’t pull the plug on this adventure. If this was a normal situation, Leah would even be thrilled her sister was focused on something she wanted.

But this wasn’t normal. And all she could say was “Fine.”

Judith nodded and Leah once again saw the flash of a question in her sister’s eyes before it dissipated. “Let’s do this.”

Feeling pulled by the inevitable, Leah squared her shoulders, adjusted her entry tag and followed her sister into the building.

Samuel Levine was under the impression that without bad luck, he’d have none. Because otherwise, he never would have gotten the call from his older brother and business manager that morning, telling him his presence was needed.

“Even without your facial hair, you’re still the face of your business.”

Samuel sighed. Not every young single male sofer writing ketubahs and mezuzahs was searching for an opportunity to write one for himself. “I thought they came to me for my calligraphy.”

Aaron shook his head. “Nope. Your jawline is sharper than any z you’ve ever written, and those brown eyes are more magnetic than your ink.”

Samuel let that pass without comment; the whole ‘hot sofer’ thing had been Aaron’s idea after all. But soon enough, the booth was set up in the usual manner. Aaron would station himself at the side, speaking to the people who approached and organizing business, and he’d be a bit further inside behind a table with pens, quills, ink, sheets of paper and a task list.

Not that he’d get anything done. It was just always better to look like he was busy, or have something there that would allow him to be busy. Just in case.

“Ready?”

He settled into the chair and nodded. “Yep.”

And as the clock struck ten, the hall was full of the sound of chatter, and the clatteof footsteps, which signified the rapid formation of lines.

“Hi,” said the first woman in the queue. “I want a mezuzah and a date.”

Somehow he managed to convince her and three other women that he wasn’t interested, and told a man that he didn’t want to make his future husband jealous no matter how many items he purchased.

The next customer came up to him with a big smile on her face. “Do you know Melanie Gould?”

He shook his head. “I don’t,” he’d said.

“But he—” the woman pointed at Aaron, who was smiling and already talking to someone else “—said you did something for her?”

That was when Samuel nodded, and the information clicked in his head. Whether it was a deliberate misunderstanding or that of a general kind, the problem was obvious. “My lettering did feature on some of these—” he pointed to the poster display behind him “—for the Goldstone saga series, which was based on Melanie Gould’s books. And some of my work was even in the show, but I’ve never met her.”

“See,” another woman said, brown eyes filled with the look that came with an explanation made and ignored multiple times. “He doesn’t know her. Like I told you.”

“But I want to make the poster my ketubah theme,” the first person said, clearly the bride. “I want my first child to be named Moshe after the first hero in the series and…”

“Tell her it’s a horrible idea to live your marriage like it’s one of your favorite books.”

This line of conversation wasn’t new, but he’d been dealing with it more and more recently. Whether it was the hot sofer thing or the push for the LivePix series, it didn’t matter.

But he wasn’t good at the delicate maneuvering a situation like this needed; his brother, glib and socially gifted, was the front man. And unfortunately, Aaron was doing his networking and negotiations and holding court in his usual spot.

Which meant defusing the tension, in a way that wouldn’t end up with him fighting copyright infringement, was up to him.

Task clear, Samuel pulled himself together and smiled. “Listen,” he said, searching for the right words, “I can absolutely create a ketubah based on a combination of your and your future spouse’s interests, something to build a future on. I can even sign a poster for you.”

“Wait,” the first woman said. “You can sign a poster for me?”

He nodded, glad he’d managed to find something that would calm the situation. “I can absolutely sign a poster for you.”

“Good.” And then a grin from the bride, a sigh from what looked like her long-suffering companion. “Sign a poster and I’ll get a ketubah and a mezuzah.”

And as he signed the poster, watching the women head over toward his brother, there was a strange feeling developing in what felt like his stomach.

It wasn’t breakfast or lack thereof, and it wasn’t nerves.

So what was it? What was going on? He definitely needed to find out.

“What’s your first stop?” Leah asked as they made their way inside, past security checks and the ticket checks. This was Judith’s show, and as she reminded herself, Leah was just along for the ride.

“Ketubahs,” Judith replied.

Fair enough.

Ketubahs were the one thing required for a Jewish wedding after all. And they were art—calligraphy, paintings—which meant work went into finding the right artist. And so Leah put on her maid of honor hat and followed her sister up the escalator.

“This way,” Judith said.

After a while of perusing the booths, she heard her sister’s question. “Anything?”

If Leah was going to be honest, there wasn’t anything. But this wasn’t Leah’s show. It was Judith’s. Which meant she had to make it clear where she stood while interpreting the situation. “No. But more importantly, do you see anything? This is for you.”

But Judith didn’t have a poker face, and Leah didn’t have to read her sister’s mind to know that she’d only asked the question to confirm she’d seen nothing that belonged on the wall of whatever residence she’d share with Asher. “No.”

So they continued to walk through, when all of a sudden, Judith stopped. Leah watched as her sister extended her arm and then her index finger toward one of the booths. “What the hell is this?”

Leah followed the direction her sister was pointing in, only to see a line.

A never-ending line of people.

She was used to seeing lines outside, and in very few booths on the main floor, like the cake-tasting areas, or some of the shoe or jewelry designers.

But here? Where the ketubah section was? “What the hell is right!”

And then Leah took in her sister’s expression, trying to discern what was going through Judith’s mind.

That way meant disaster.

No. Absolutely not. “We’re not waiting on that line,” Leah said, making it very clear to her sister that this was a line she wasn’t crossing.

“Wouldn’t even think of it,” Judith said, sounding chastised. Because of course her sister had no poker face and it was very obvious to Leah that Judith had thought of suggesting they stand on the line.

Instead, as if Judith was changing tactics, she looked toward the crowd. “What’s going on?”

“The hot sofer,” said the woman closest to them, or rather the woman standing in front of them.

“I wouldn’t mind if he, you know, made me a ketubah,” said the man who’d gotten behind them.

Because she had followed Judith, and now Leah and her sister were, in fact, waiting on the line.

Of course they were.

But she’d heard many things in her lifetime (she was a sports agent after all) but this? Well. This took the cake.

“Are you waiting for a consult?” Judith asked, because it seemed they were actually going to get a consult with this ‘hot sofer.’

Whoever he was.

“I just want him to sign my…well…” the young woman said, pointing to what she’d been carrying; it was rolled up and secured with a rubber band. Leah figured it had to be some kind of poster.

“So you just want his autograph?” Leah clarified.

The woman nodded. “Yes.”

“Got it. And,” Judith ventured, not to be deterred by autograph seekers, “if you do want a consult?”

“His business manager,” the gentleman chimed in, “is over there. He’s the one inside the line.”

There were many sofers who had business managers on site at the convention. With no reason for…lines and this kind of disaster.

But she followed Judith anyway, as her sister made a beeline toward the area where the business manager was supposed to be. Supposed to, because if she was running this appearance, she’d be nowhere near this…mishegas.

“Judith Nachman!”

Her sister turned at the sound of the voice, which was familiar in a way that made Leah nervous.

“Aaron!!” Judith yelled, in what clearly seemed like recognition.

Wait. Aaron…Levine?

Judith was a year younger than Aaron Levine. As they started to talk, Judith enthusiastically describing how excited she was for the wedding, the bright tones of her sister’s voice wreaked havoc through Leah’s already messed-up head…

“Oh,” Aaron said, “my brother can totally make your ketubah!”

Aaron had one brother.

And the less Leah said about him, the better.

“Really?” Judith squealed, and yes, actually squealed.

But the squeal filled Leah with dread. “Um,” Leah managed, wanting to put the brakes on this impending disaster as quickly as she possibly could.

Unfortunately, it seemed the train had left the station, as her sister wasn’t paying attention to anything. She was focused on the ketubahs and…

“SAMUEL!” Aaron’s voice rang through the confusion in the convention hall.

Oh. God.

If Leah could have walked away or done anything other than stand there, she would have.

But she couldn’t.

So she pulled her professional-agent, don’t-mess-with-me mask on—shoulders back, eyes focused, jaw stiff before turning in the direction of Aaron’s voice.

And of course Aaron caught her gaze and was now pointing.

The eyes were what she saw first; the same chocolate brown she spent high school drowning in. There was a slight grayish tint to his sideburns and the slightest trace of razor burn on his cheeks that hid cheekbones sharper than any word he’d ever uttered in her defense.

He wasn’t the same; nobody stayed the same after almost twenty years.

But in his eyes, Leah could see the boy who broke her heart all those years ago.

Damn him.

“Leah.”

Even now, Samuel Levine’s voice wrapped around her in ways she didn’t want to succumb to. But she shoved her emotions deep down inside of her, settled into a neutral state as she matched his glance with her own. “Samuel.”

It became a contest, and she refused to back down. Never let them see you sweat, they said.

Well.

She wasn’t letting him see her blink.

“Leah.”

She heard the under-the-breath reprimand in her sister’s voice. But Leah wasn’t budging.

“Who is she? Who is she?”

It started as a whisper, but the noise became louder; she could presume the cacophony of voices came from the line, a crowd of fascinated bystanders.

But all she cared about was making him blink first.

Samuel’s long lashes came down only for a second.

And yet, she could see the tension in his throat.

What was going on?

“She’s my girlfriend.”

Leah bit her lip to keep from screaming. Forced herself to stay still to keep from racing to erase the space between them and shaking him.

Which was when she saw the desperation in his eyes.

“Please.”

If it had been anywhere else, she would have turned away or thrown something.

But she’d never hear the end of it from her sister, and if she had to really think about it, she liked the idea of him owing her. Not to mention Aaron was clearly shit at crowd control, something that someone trading on the name the hot sofer desperately needed.

So she assessed the room, and then headed to the space by Samuel’s side, right behind the table.

And suddenly, the line was shorter, presumably leaving only the people who were there for Samuel’s art, not his face.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Judith talking with Aaron.

“Do you want me to do your sister’s ketubah? I’m assuming that’s why she’s talking to Aaron?”

His voice broke the silence she was trying to create. Not to mention the way his voice still did things to her all those years later was still a large problem. But she was used to wearing masks of indifference. “Why would I care?” she asked. “Exactly?”

“I figured that, you know, because you’re here, that your opinions matter.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Why do you think she wants one of your ketubahs?”

“Because she and my brother seem to be negotiating one.”

Which was a detail she should have paid attention to, except she hadn’t. But in the end, the only opinion that mattered was her sister’s. And if she needed to educate Samuel she would. “It doesn’t matter. She’s the bride.”

And as her sister negotiated a ketubah with Aaron, she was stuck there. Playing public girlfriend for Samuel, one bad decision leading to another.

And now she was stuck.

Dammit.

One minute Samuel was navigating through the process of talking to people and autographing posters, the next he’d turned toward the sound of his brother’s voice only to see Judith Nachman’s profile.

Which meant that the blue eyes staring at him could only belong to one person. The familiar shade of blue he’d tried to duplicate in ink, the very particular brown of her hair he saw in every single calligraphy brush he used.

Leah.

Her features had come to life with age as if she’d escaped from a cryogenic container. She was beautiful; she’d always been, but now? Now she was perfect. She was just as transfixed as he was, it seemed, until the moment he watched her draw herself inwards, as if she’d flipped a switch.

Which meant he was now in…of all things…a staring contest?

Samuel wasn’t sure, but what he did see was movement, anticipation in the eyes of at least the first person on line in front of him. Which meant the noise he’d started to hear were whispers of questions that got louder and louder.

And yet despite all of that, all he could see was Leah. Standing there. And whether it was panic, delusion or hope, he wasn’t sure. All the same, he blurted out the first answer to the question that came to his mind.

“She’s my girlfriend.”

And now Leah Nachman stood next to him, watching the now much smaller line clear out.

“Fine,” she’d said, answering his question about whether she minded if he made her sister’s ketubah. “It’s my sister’s ketubah, not mine. Your business, your choice.”

“So again,” he said, realizing he’d pulled her into drama she didn’t want, “does it bother you?”

“I’m not the one in the market for a ketubah,” she snapped, before pausing as if she’d realized he wasn’t trying to cause trouble. “Or a boyfriend. You need better crowd control.”

He’d never been more confused, but he’d take it. “Okay?”

“I’m serious,” she said, shaking her head as if she was judging his performance. “If you’re doing this hot sofer thing, you need better crowd control.”

That again. That idea, marketing plan, whatever it was. Aaron’s not so brilliant idea had gotten him publicity and more commissions, but not the kind of attention he wanted. It had, in fact, become a nightmare.

But for some reason he felt it was important to make it clear to Leah that the title of hot sofer wasn’t something he wanted. Not that she’d change her opinion of him so easily. But he felt she needed to know. “I’m not doing it. Not my idea. It just is.”

“Whatever,” Leah said, as if she was closing a door. Of course his thoughts didn’t matter to her.

“Whosever idea it was,” she continued, “it was a marketing choice that creates crowds. You need to deal with crowds.”

He blinked. What? “Are you saying you’ll… Are you offering to fix the problem you think I have?”

She shook her head. He wasn’t that lucky. “My obligation to clean up your mess ended a long time ago, if it ever existed in the first place.”

Right.

Ages ago.

When he’d been a dumb high school kid who broke her heart.

And according to the script, after she uttered that truism, she’d leave and they’d be done.

Except she didn’t leave.

“Once my sister finishes organizing her ketubahs with your brother, I’m gone.”

That was the addition to the script he’d forgotten; she wasn’t here at all of her own volition. Not in the building, not at the expo, not at his booth. But all he could say was: “Fair enough.”

“You have no poker face,” she continued, as if her entire purpose was to examine him and pick out his faults or analyze his business practices for potential problems. “You need one.”

He did. Need one. But that was what Aaron was for, right?

Or what he was supposed to be for at least. Public-facing glib businessperson, protecting the ridiculously strange sofer who happened to have a nice face.

“Anyway,” she said. “I think my sister has a huge list of things to do, so we should probably move on.”

“I won’t keep you,” he said.

Even though he wanted to.

Even though he wanted to tease her, to give her reason to stay and talk, a buzzer went off on her phone; she lifted it up and he saw something about a cake.

“The cake-tasting area’s been busy the entire time,” he said. “If you have a particular cake you want to taste…?”

“We do,” she said, taking the information as gratefully as he gave it.

“Then,” he said, deciding give her an out of some sort, “you’ll probably have to, you know, head over there soon.”

Leah nodded. He could see the surprise in her expression, as if she hadn’t expected to have this kind of interaction. “Probably sooner than that. Thank you for the advice.”

“Turnabout is fair play,” he replied. “Poker face and crowd control.”

She nodded again, the expression on her face as if he was reminding her of something she’d prefer to forget. “Right. Bye.”

“More like ‘see you around,’” he replied. “Because ketubah.”

“Right,” she said as if she’d forgotten her sister was negotiating with his brother. “One of my maid of honor tasks. So, I guess it is ‘see you around.’”

And as he watched Leah walk away, he wondered what else would happen now that she was back in his life. More importantly, he wondered what he’d do to keep her there.

End of Excerpt

This book will begin shipping March 21, 2024

The Dating Contract is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-961544-86-4

March 21, 2024

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