When you’ve lived in New York as long as I have, you start to accept the fact that there are certain undeniable truths about life in this city.1) Carrie Bradshaw never could have afforded that apartment on a journalist’s salary.2) Unless your idea of Sunday Funday is a teary three p.m. orange-juice hangover, unlimited mimosa brunch is never a good idea.
And 3) this city—and, let’s face it, basically the whole world—is set up for couples. Everything is easier if you’re one half of a pair. Rent is cheaper. Battling the mobs at the grocery store on a weekend is less soul-crushing. And the odds of dying one of those grim, Daily News-type deaths where nobody knows you’re gone until the neighbors start to notice a funny smell from down the hallway? Way less likely when there’s someone around to catch the stench and stop kitty from eating your face.
Most of us try to find our other half the old-fashioned way: looking for true love. A partner to fill our lives with joy—or, at the very least, someone to slump in front of Netflix with on a Friday night and stop us from eating a whole block of cheese alone. (Not that I’ve done that. Not at all.) But what happens if that hasn’t worked out for you just yet, but you still need someone on your team?
Well, if you’re wealthy, and connected enough to know the number—you call me.
The Agency specializes in matchmaking . . . of the fake variety. I’m not aiming to find my clients true love (although, that seems to be a side benefit for a few of them these days), just a true partner-in-crime. Need a fake fiancée to get your interfering relatives off your case? I’m your woman. Old-school workplace treating you like a brazen hussy because you’re not coupled up? I’ll find a partner for that work retreat that your boss will adore. I’m discreet, professional, and I have a knack for finding just the right match to get your through that tough spot. After all, everyone deserves someone to have their back, even the weirdos.
Especially the weirdos.
“So, I think I’ve got all the information I need,” I say now, smiling across my desk at today’s client. Jason is the newly-flush CEO of a tech startup that was just bought out by Google, and he needs a date to bring to a company-wide retreat in the Berkshires. Though most my clients are just too busy—or too famous—to find themselves the right date, with Jason I’m pretty sure it’s got more to do with his twenty-dollar haircut and his habit of peppering every conversation with arcane trivia from Star Trek. “I should be able to find someone with an advanced degree in a STEM field and an interest in . . .” I double-check my notes. “Traditional Latvian folk music.”
“That’s great,” Jason says, smiling eagerly. He can’t be more than twenty-two, and the fact that he has no idea how to handle his newfound fortune is achingly obvious. At our very first meeting, he parked his brand-new Maserati in a tow zone in front of my office and had to take a cab all the way to Coney Island to get it back.
“In the meantime, I want you to go see my friend Lucas down at Bergdorf’s,” I tell him. There’s no way I’m about to send this guy out into the world in his Pac-Man T-shirt and Birkenstocks, no matter how rich he is. After all, I’ve got a reputation to protect. “And I’ve had my assistant Alice make you an appointment at a great salon.”
“Sounds good,” Jason says, nodding like a bobblehead. Then his face clouds. “There is one more thing I’m looking for in a date,” he says, suddenly nervous. “And I think it might be a little . . . unorthodox.”
“Oh?” I try to keep my face neutral. I have to explain to new clients, gently but firmly, that I’m not running that kind of agency. In fact, I have strict rules about romantic activities—they’re totally forbidden.
Jason takes a deep breath. “I’m looking for someone with experience as a Dungeon Master.”
Oh, yikes. “Unfortunately that’s not part of the suite of services we offer here,” I say carefully, “but I’d be happy to give you the card of an extremely discreet dominatrix who operates a private club on the Lower East Side, and I’m sure she’ll be able to—”
All at once Jason sits bolt upright in his chair. “Wait wait wait,” he interrupts, turning the color of a late-summer tomato. “A dominatrix? What are you talking about?”
I frown. “Isn’t that what you just—?”
“A Dungeon Master,” he says witheringly. “Like, for Dungeons and Dragons.”
“Oh. Oh!” I feel my face flush to match his. “Of course. I didn’t realize—”
“Jeez,” he interrupts, looking at me like possibly I’m the perv here. “What kind of operation are you running?”
I spend the next twenty minutes reassuring him that we’re on the up and up, then show him out and turn to my assistant, Alice, who’s sitting behind the reception desk typing away at her computer, her dark hair in a tidy Audrey Hepburn topknot at the crown of her head. “How was that?” she asks, raising her eyebrows.
“Oh, you know.” I stretch as Thor, our cranky ginger cat hops down off the filing cabinet and prowls across the Persian rug. I bend down to scratch him behind his mangy ears. “Just another day in the coal mines. You can knock off early,” I say, straightening up and smoothing my pencil skirt. “I’ve got a lunch across town, and then I’m just going to take the rest of the day.”
Alice tilts her head to the side. “Hot date?” she asks.
“I wish,” I say, plucking my jacket off the brass coat rack in the corner. “My dad’s in town.”
I’m running late, so I take a car across town to the Palace Hotel, where my dad likes to stay every time he’s in New York. My phone rings while we’re stopped in traffic, and I grimace when I see the caller ID.
“Hi, Ryan,” I say, hoping the eye-roll isn’t too obvious in my voice. Ryan Callahan is one of my most difficult, demanding clients. And not because he isn’t attractive. The polar opposite, actually. He was a star quarterback for a pro football team until an injury to his Achilles tendon cut his career short three years ago. Since then he’s had his hand in all kinds of different businesses—sports drinks, fitness apps, even a sneaker line—and his combination of brains and brawn should make him an easy match—if I was just looking for a real date. But the guy needs someone to help him schmooze with investors, and he’s ridiculously picky. He’s auditioned nearly my entire roster, but nobody is good enough. Ryan may be rich and handsome—OK, he’s hot as all get out, with the kind of broad, hard body you want to climb like a mountain—but he’s proving to be a Kilimanjaro-sized pain in my ass.
“Hey, Olivia,” he says, his easygoing voice hiding what I know is an iron will. “We need to talk.”
“Of course,” I reply. “I’m glad you called. Tell me more about why you didn’t like Amy?” And Tessa, and Claire, and Erin, I silently add.
“It’s not that I didn’t like her, exactly,” Ryan says as the car pulls up in front of the hotel. I scoot out of the backseat, smiling at the doorman as I slip through the revolving door and head for the lobby. The Palace is quintessential old New York, with marble floors and crystal chandeliers, the smell of lilies heavy in the air. “She was fine,” Ryan continues. “But I need the perfect wingwoman, you know? This investor meeting is a huge deal.”
“No, I know it is,” I promise, wanting to head him off at the pass before he launches into his pitch—again. He’s trying to raise capital to launch a chain of health food kiosks, and his potential investor is an old-school finance guy, so to make a good impression he needs someone smart and sophisticated. Which, for the record, all my girls are. But none of them have passed muster with Captain America over here. And the truth is I’m starting to run out of options.
“There’s a woman named Lauren I want you to meet,” I tell him now, climbing the wide carpeted steps that lead to the lobby. “She’s an executive assistant at a gallery downtown—very smart, very culturally savvy. I’ll have Alice make you a dinner reservation for this weekend.”
“If you say so,” Ryan says, sounding uncertain. “I just think . . .”
I lose the rest of his sentence in the loud buzzing that suddenly fills my ears as I turn the corner into the lobby—and catch sight of a familiar woman strolling across the plush oriental rug.
“Shit,” I blurt, stopping in my tracks and scooting behind a massive floral arrangement before she can see me. My heart jackhammers violently against my ribs as I peek out and check I wasn’t just hallucinating.
But nope. There she is. Vanessa Simpson, my psycho college roommate in the flesh. A lot of flesh. She’s sashaying through the lobby in a flimsy sundress with a Birkin bag slung over one arm.
Ryan breaks off. “Olivia?” he says. “Are you OK?”
“Um, yup,” I promise distractedly, darting behind a bellman pushing a loaded luggage cart across the lobby. “Completely. I’m listening.”
He keeps talking, but I peek through a couple of garment bags to watch Vanessa, who’s stalking across the lobby like she thinks it’s a runway. She was my roommate freshman year and made my life a living hell. There were the normal roommate annoyances, sure—the clothes-stealing, the messiness, the loud hookups so I had to sleep with earplugs and an eye mask in case she came stumbling back at two a.m. with a guy and stripped naked right up against the door. (Twice.)
And then there were the next-level stunts, the kind that took her from “selfish and spoiled” to “psycho in the making.” Like casually wiping my finals papers from my laptop because, whoops, she couldn’t figure out how to download the new Housewives episodes. Or the time I got a particularly gnarly zit on my lip and she told everyone on our floor I had mouth herpes. It took me a week to figure out why the RA kept offering to escort me to the health center.
If there was one silver lining to living with a raging She-Demon like Vanessa, it was her big brother Tristan, who was at school down at Princeton and took the train up to visit sometimes. He always invited me out to dinner with the two of them, asking me about my classes and what books I was reading. To say I had a crush on him was an understatement—the truth is, I would have hitchhiked to New Jersey in a pair of crotchless panties if he’d ever shown one tiny glimmer of interest. As it was, I settled for stalking—ahem, scrutinizing every post he made on social media and dreaming up elaborate fantasies in which he rode up on a fiery steed—or a Toyota Corolla, whatever—and rescued me from undergraduate hell.
But that was then. The minute freshman year was over, I switched dorms and kept my distance from Vanessa. I haven’t seen either one of them since graduation, and I fully intend to keep it that way.
I skulk past the lobby and into an alcove, then drag my focus back to the conversation. Ryan is a big, important client, and I’m determined to find him someone who ticks all the boxes. “Ashley will be perfect,” I tell him. “I think you two will really hit it off.”
I hang up with Ryan and peek around the corner to check the lobby. All clear. Vanessa is mercifully gone—off to have her broomstick re-bristled, maybe, or to steal candy from a small child with a terminal illness. I let out a sigh of relief and head into the restaurant, where my dad is already seated at a table by the window, a glass of Basil Hayden on the rocks sweating in his hand.
“Hi, Dad,” I say, bending to kiss him on the cheek.
“Hiya, sweetheart.” My dad retired down to Key West a few years ago and spends his days relaxing on the beach and taking friends out on his fishing boat. But he’s still a Northeasterner at his core and he makes his way back like a homing pigeon every few months. “How you doing?”
I order a drink and we spend a few minutes catching up. “Should we order?” I ask finally, glancing down at the menu.
“In a minute,” my dad says. “First, I’ve got news.”
I raise my eyebrows, I can’t help it. Suddenly I know exactly where this is going. “Let me guess,” I deadpan. “You’re getting married again?”
My dad makes an exaggerated who, me? face. “Well, hell, Livvie,” he says, sounding a little hurt. “When you say it like that you make it sound as if I’ve got a new bride every week.”
Every couple of years, more like. My mom died when I was in high school, and ever since then my dad has gone through wives like other men go through undershirts. Whoever this woman is, she’ll be new stepmom #4. I try not to let it get to me—it’s his life, after all, and I want him to be happy, even if it does mean having to pretend to be interested in some daffy stranger’s rare doll collection just because she happens to be married to my dad.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I tease, “so you’re not getting married again?”
“Well, yes,” my dad admits sheepishly. Then he brightens. “But this one’s a winner. Really, Livvie, it’s someone I’m sure you’ll like.”
“Oh yeah?” I ask, taking a sip of my prosecco. “What’s she like?”
“You already know her,” my dad says, visibly pleased with himself. “In fact: you’ve lived together.”
“We’ve—wait, what?” I set my glass down on the table.
There’s a horrifying moment where I start to put two and two together, but
it’s like I can’t force my brain to finish the thought before two hands with long pink nails like talons land on my shoulders.
I whirl around and there’s Vanessa suddenly looming over me like a Disney villain, as if she’d appeared in a puff of smoke. “Guess what, Livvie,” she trills, baring her teeth in a wide, white smile. “I’m going to be your new mom!”