Series: Seasons of Sugar Creek #2
Published by: Jelly Bean Press Co
Release Date: June 1, 2023
Contributors: Heather Tullis
Brooklyn loves being a dating coach with her best friend, Leah. But when word gets out that the "dating experts" are single, damaging their business, Leah claims she and Brooklyn are in relationships, hoping to save their business reputation. She claims Jackson for herself and that her cousin, Wyatt, is dating Brooklyn.
But Brooklyn can't deny her growing attraction for Jackson.
Fake-dating Leah is one of craziest things Jackson has done since high school. Too bad Jackson yearns for Brooklyn. But when his fake relationship with Leah turns into a fake engagement, he knows all chances with Brooklyn are over--there was no graceful way to end his fake relationship with Lean to get together with her best friend, now. No matter how much he has fallen for Brooklyn.
Also in this series:
Brooklyn looked at her electronic scheduling app and clicked done on batching the week’s posts for social media. Leah, her business partner, and best friend since childhood, sat beside her, talking to one of their dating-coach clients about how the client’s date went the night before.
Looking at her day’s to-do list, Brooklyn saw the reminder to get a date to fill the plus-one spot for her sister’s wedding, which was only six weeks away. Problem? She hadn’t had a date in months. In fact, she was coming up on a year since she’d broken up with Jake the Jerk. She moved the reminder to the next day on her calendar and looked at what was coming next. Putting off the job of finding a guy willing to attend a wedding—most likely with people he’d never met—had become a habit. It had begun appearing on her schedule two weeks ago—right when she’d set it to remind her.
Unfortunately, keeping the business profitable enough to support both her and Leah had kept them both exceptionally busy. When she added in bride's maid duties for Mackenzie’s wedding, she didn’t have time to look for a date.
She’d worry about it later. Six weeks was plenty of time. Right?
With fifteen minutes until her next client call was scheduled, Brooklyn opted to check notifications and interact with their page followers rather than get partway through a new task on her to-do list.
Leah snapped her fingers and, when Brooklyn looked her way, pointed at the notebook that lay just beyond her reach.
Brooklyn slid it across the dining room table they used as their desk in the small home they both lived and worked in and looked at what Leah was writing. After a moment, she decided it was notes on the call and not a note to herself and focused back on her laptop screen.
She responded to comments on their private group page, to messages sent by a couple prospective clients who contacted her through the app, and in response to a private question, posted a more generalized discussion question on their company’s public page to get people talking about their own feelings and experiences in that area. Group discussions usually provided more interesting and varied options for these kinds of questions, and she and Leah could chime in that evening to add their thoughts.
She changed apps and began the same process again when she paused at a comment that caught her by surprise.
I don’t know why these women think they’re equipped to give advice to other people about dating when neither of them have dated in ages. What kind of example are they being, anyway?
Two other people responded to the comment, obviously surprised and now more skeptical about her and Leah’s expertise.
Brooklyn hurried to delete the comments. She didn’t recognize any of the posters—were they even real accounts? How had they known that Brooklyn and Leah were currently dateless wonders? Why did they care? How many people had seen the comments before she deleted them? They weren’t very old, but this was a busy time of day for this particular account.
Noticing the time, she jotted a quick sticky note to remind herself to talk to Leah about it after they finished up their coaching calls and set it beside her laptop.
She was just starting her conversation with Janelle, a rather brash young woman who was always going after the wrong kind of guys, when Leah touched the sticky note. Brooklyn shook her head when she saw Leah’s questioning look and mouthed the word, “Later.”
Leah nodded and moved to the mini-fridge they kept in the corner with cold water and fresh fruit. Knowing the signs that her friend was about to begin to fidget with things and pace, Brooklyn set her elbow on the table and leaned her forehead on her thumb and forefinger, splaying out her other fingers to block the view of her partner. The pacing could get very distracting sometimes, so she was glad this was a phone call and not a video call.
Leah returned to her seat just as Brooklyn was winding down the call. “I’ll talk to you next week, then. Thanks.” She pushed end and leaned back in her seat, looking over at Leah.
“Sorry, I’m feeling antsy.”
“You skipped your workout this morning again, didn’t you?” Brooklyn asked.
“I didn’t sleep well, so I slept in. What does your note mean?” Leah rolled her an orange.
Brooklyn caught it up and dug her fingernails into the rind, smelling the orange oils as they fanned into the air. “Note?” When Leah pointed to it, Brooklyn nodded. “Right. Well, someone posted on one of our social pages about how we’re terminally single and thus not good examples of our work.”
“We’re not hypocrites, we’re just going through dry spells. Besides, we’ve helped nearly a hundred people get through dating woes and settle into relationships.” Lean pointed to the board behind her on the wall of sixteen wedding announcements. The last of which had only arrived the day before.
“I deleted the comments. We don’t need that kind of negativity,” Brooklyn said. “But we probably ought to start looking for love again. It’s been a while since either of us has dated.”
“I’ve dated,” Leah said.
“No, you’ve had dates, but it’s been what, seven, eight months, since you dated anyone more than twice? Longer for me,” Brooklyn admitted.
“We’ve been busy making the business profitable. That precludes much personal time.” Leah’s leg swung, keeping time with the ticking of the clock.
“All too true.” Especially since, until they’d been able to focus solely on the business a few months earlier, they had also been working day jobs. Even though they were focused only on their coaching business now, they hadn’t trimmed their work hours by much.
“Did you finish the social media posts?” Leah asked.
“Yeah, did you send the podcast those talking points?” Brooklyn countered.
“Just before my last session.” Leah tapped the butt end of a pen against the notepad she had been writing on earlier. “Wyatt finally wore me down and made me promise to give his friend a chance at the online commercial.”
“I’m still not sure about that,” Brooklyn said. “It’s a major expense and I’m not sure if we can afford to lose the money if it doesn’t work.”
“I figured we could at least talk it over with him and see how we feel about it. I haven’t seen Jackson in years, but I remember him being a reasonable guy. And cute. I told him we could talk terms and ideas and see if we all gelled.”
“It’s a major expense,” Brooklyn reminded.
“But important if we want to grow,” Leah countered. “No risk, no reward. I mean, look what a little calculated risk got for us already.” She spread her arms to take in the back room of the house they lived in, and now used as their office.
True. There had been a series of careful risks that they’d taken along the way, but each one had left her a little terrified. This was no exception. So far, though, most of those risks had good results, and some had great results. Leah may be impulsive in a lot of areas, but she’d mostly been careful when it came to work.
“It’s not like it will hurt to talk to him—even if we don’t do it now, the discussion will help us know what to expect when we are ready to do it. He’ll swing by tomorrow sometime to go over things with us. I suggested right after the podcast interview. You want to order a pizza while we go over my revisions to the commercial script?” Leah asked.
“We have leftovers in the fridge from yesterday that we should eat first.”
“Fine.” Leah looked less excited about that option.
“I’ll reheat them.” Brooklyn pushed away from the table. Building the business couldn’t wait. A date for her sister’s wedding, well, that would keep for a little longer.
“Thanks, Reid. I’ll make those changes and shoot the new version back to you tonight.” Jackson made one last note on the project document as they said goodbye. He opened the client’s video file on a different screen. The commercial for a local dry cleaner was his one-hundredth editing project that year—and it was only late September. Business was definitely picking up.
Half an hour later, he uploaded the latest version to the cloud and sent Reid the latest link before shutting down for the night. It was a good day’s work, with a few more projects in the hopper for the next week, plus his appointment to meet with the dating-coach service about a possible commercial for them.
He stepped out into the cool fall air as a red maple leaf fluttered down to land at his feet. Jackson rented a small apartment attached to the back of his landlord’s home, which allowed him to move into a quiet, upscale neighborhood even when he wasn’t making much. He still couldn’t afford to buy a place in this part of town, but at least he was no longer dropping into his parents’ home for dinner three times a week just to keep from starving like when he had first moved here. Working from home had helped keep his business costs low, but it did make it harder to leave work behind at the end of the day.
His phone rang and he smiled when he saw Wyatt’s image pop up on his screen. “Hey, man, what’s up?” he greeted.
“Just wondering if you wanted to grab some dinner, maybe go bowling or something. I need to get out of the house.”
“Perfect. Meet you at The Sugar Bowl in fifteen? We can grab dinner there before getting a lane.”
“Great. See you then.” Wyatt hung up.
That was Wyatt, never one to spend any more time on the phone than necessary. Jackson took in a deep lungful of air and headed back inside to grab his keys and a jacket—it was getting a lot cooler at night these days.
When he pulled into the bowling alley, he could see Wyatt’s little yellow car already parked in the next row, and strolled into the noise and scents of the alley, spotting his oldest friend immediately. They had been best friends since they were in elementary school, though their years of living in different cities through college and their early careers before both eventually came back to town to settle down again had challenged that relationship for a while. When they returned, however, they settled right back into their old friendship.
Jackson slid into a chair across the table from Wyatt as his phone began to ring. “Sorry,” he said when he saw it was his mom. She’d just call back every five minutes until he picked up.
“No problem.” Wyatt slid the menu across to him.
“Hey, Mom, what’s going on?” Jackson said as he looked at the pizza offerings. Unlike Wyatt, who always ordered meat lovers pizza, Jackson preferred to change things up, and settled on a Hawaiian barbecue option while his mom talked about something cute his nephew had done that day. Jackson tapped his choice for Wyatt to order it and stood from the table to find a quieter place to finish the call.
“You have to be at the bowling alley again,” his mom said disapprovingly. “Please tell me you aren’t there alone.”
“No, I’m grabbing some pizza with Wyatt and then we’ll play for a while. Aren’t you glad to see me leave my work cave?”
“I’d be happier if it was a date with a girl. Have you dated anyone since you moved back two years ago? Even one date?” she asked.
His lack of a social life was one of her biggest worries, but after his last breakup, he hadn’t been in any hurry to get involved with someone again. The fact that his business ate up all his time hadn’t helped with his reluctance to get back out there again. “I’ve been out several times. Remember, I took your neighbor to the movies a few months ago.”
“Only because I practically forced you into it,” she countered. “I’m ready to force you again if you don’t get out and find someone on your own. Do you really want to go to your friend reunion all alone next month when you know Katie will be there with her new husband? She’ll definitely rub it in your face if you’re alone.”
True, all too true. He needed to find a date before then—and it would be better if they’d been out a few times first. However, he had no interest in whomever his mom had decided was perfect for him. “I’ve kind of been seeing this other woman lately. Very casually.” So casually one would be more likely to call them passing like runners on the river trail rather than dates—as that’s all it was. Seeing had more than one meaning, after all.
“Really? Tell me all about her.”
Uh, he didn’t even know her name, so that could be a problem. “I’ll have to do that another time; the waitress just arrived at our table.” True again, but he was across the building by the door.
“Sunday dinner. Be there. And bring the girl so I can meet her. Goodnight sweetie.” She ended the call without waiting for his goodbye.
Crap. What had he gotten himself into?
When he arrived back at the table, two colas sat on the table, and the menu was gone.
“How’s your mom? How long did it take her to ask about your social life?” Wyatt asked.
“She’s fit and feisty as ever. And about two minutes. Practically a record for her to put it off that long, but there were cute grandchild antics to discuss first.”
“Annie, or Tyler?”
“Tyler this time. Anyway, she’s pushing me to bring a date to Sunday dinner this weekend.”
“Whoa. Who would bring a first date to a family dinner?” Wyatt asked.
When Jackson didn’t respond, Wyatt sat back and laughed. “She thinks you’re dating someone?”
“Maybe.” He felt stupider by the minute.
“Why would you tell her that?”
“Why do you think?” Jackson folded his arms across his chest, annoyed by the much-deserved teasing.
“Of course she was going to set you up again,” Wyatt shook his head. “So, who is this mythical woman your mom thinks is coming to dinner?”
“I got out of there before giving her a name. Maybe I can claim she’s out of town and put it off a little longer.”
“But she’s gonna want a name, right?” Wyatt asked.
Oh yeah. He was seriously in trouble.
The next morning when Brooklyn woke up, there was a message from her oldest sister, Mackenzie.
“Have you seen this post on social media?” There was a link.
Brooklyn clicked the link and gasped when she found a post with their company tagged in from someone complaining that they weren’t suited to give anyone dating advice. There were far too many views on the post. “Crap!”
She jumped up and ran across the hall to the other tiny bedroom, barging in through the slightly open door without hesitation. “Leah, wake up.”
“What?” Leah lay under her Hello Kitty blanket, her arm slung over her eyes to block out the sun.
“This same idiot from the negative comments on our company strikes again—and look at all the comments.” She sent the link to Leah.
Leah slapped the nightstand without opening her eyes, hitting the phone after a few tries and lifting it to look at. One eye squeezed open and a moment later, she was clicking around with her thumb. A moment later, she yelped and sat bolt upright in bed. “What the heck? Who is this person?”
“Good question.” Brooklyn checked her email and groaned when she saw three notices of cancellation for pre-coaching appointments. “And it’s costing us.”
“Really? We have to nip this in the bud!” Suddenly wide awake, Leah jumped out of bed in PJs covered in cartoon cats and rushed out of the room.
Brooklyn followed her at a much more sedate speed. She was every bit as worried as Leah, but rushing wouldn’t solve anything at the moment.
By the time Brooklyn got her morning banana and sauntered into the dining room/office, Leah was already sitting at her computer, her long, blond hair tangled and stinking out in weird places. Brooklyn took a moment to pull her own unruly brown locks back in a hair elastic that was sitting on the edge of the table. Her elastics were scattered all over the house, so she could almost always find one when she needed it.
She looked over Brooklyn’s shoulder long enough to see her finish typing a sentence and hitting send.
“Wait, what’s that? We are not dating anyone? Why would you say we are?” Brooklyn asked.
“Because it was hurting our business for people to think we were single losers.”
“We’re not single losers, we’re just… single.” Brooklyn argued. She looked back at the comment Leah had posted, reading it more closely. “You have not been dating someone for nearly six months. What are you thinking?”
“Who’s going to know the truth? Besides, look.” She pointed at a reply by one of their clients, which read, “I knew someone as intuitive as you would be in a relationship.”
“This is going to come back to bite us in the butt,” Brooklyn warned.
“We need to get out ahead of this. I need my coffee and then we can get into serious planning mode,” Leah said.
Brooklyn hurriedly stepped back to get out of the way of Leah’s chair, which would otherwise have slid over her toes. “I’m taking a run and then a shower.”
“You’re just hoping to see that hot guy you’ve been talking about,” Leah said with a frown.
“Who wouldn’t? That face, those brown eyes, the well-toned…” Brooklyn gestured vaguely in the air, “everything.”
“You should say hello for a change. We both need dates, and pronto,” Leah said.
“I’m not asking out a random guy I see while we’re out running,” Brooklyn called over her shoulder as she walked away, and then mumbled to herself, “No matter how much I may want to.”
He was probably dating, or married, or gay. All the good guys were one of those things. Why hadn’t she found Mr. Right when she was still in her early twenties and guys were apparently still interested in her? Oh yeah, because she wasted two years with the jerk. She tightened her shoulders up to her neck and then released them, working the tense muscles. What a way to wake up. At least she still had time for a run.
The opening strains of one of Leah’s Zumba tapes snuck into the room with Brooklyn, and she shook her head. She could already see Leah sipping her coffee and snacking on an apple while she watched the first short video. It was part of the daily ritual. Once Leah had gotten through viewing the first fifteen-minute video, she would set aside her coffee and dance in her bare or sock-clad feet, and whatever pajamas she happened to be wearing. Or she would turn it off and get back to work, considering herself to have worked out.
Brooklyn could always tell which one she had chosen, even if she was out when it happened, since actually-exercised Leah managed to sit still and focus most of the day, while pretend-exercised Leah would get anxious and start to pace by mid afternoon, if not sooner.
When Brooklyn passed the living room on her way out, Leah’s foot was tapping to the rhythm, and she was already swaying to the music. Looked like it was going to be an actual-exercise day.
She set off for the river-side running trail that was only a couple of blocks away, and turned right, heading east into the morning sun. She loved the quiet morning time when she ran. It helped her clear her mind to put her thoughts in order and plan out her day, so when she moved to her to-do list, it flowed together much better. There was a cool fall snap in the air and the leaves were starting to shift from green to shades of gold and orange. She tucked her phone in an accessible pocket while she listened to wordless music so she could pull it out and dictate thoughts during the run if she had an idea about something.
She looked across the river at the elementary school, where she could just make out kids on the playground. Ahead of her in the distance, the community center and theater stood proudly, poking above the surrounding buildings. She had great memories of both places and was glad to be back in her hometown. Now she only had to weather the newest storm in their business venture. It was true that she’d been too busy with work to find a new special someone in her life, but maybe it was time she started putting herself back out there. Mackenzie’s wedding loomed larger than life.
Speaking of men, as she came around a curve where a stand of trees had blocked her vision, she saw the hottie running toward her. As he drew near, she saw the light glisten of sweat on his olive skin and his lips curved in a smile.
“Good morning,” he called to her as he passed by.
“Good morning,” she responded. As she sometimes did, she turned her head to look at his retreating figure to get a better look at his backside—and this time caught him doing the same to her. Her cheeks would have flushed, if they hadn’t already been red with exertion as she faced front again.
Maybe he was interested. Maybe she should try for more than good morning next time. She tried pushing that thought out of her head, but it kept sliding back in while she worked on ideas for the book she and Leah had been considering writing, helping others with their dating struggles.
Of course, if they didn’t squash the all-too-true rumors about their own dateless selves soon, no one would want to buy the book, anyway. She hit her turn-around point a mile down the road from where she entered the running trail and headed back. A quick shower, breakfast, and back to work. They had to get this social media firestorm under control.
Four hours later, Brooklyn and Leah sat in front of their computers, headphones with mics in place on opposite sides of the room to minimize cross noise as they talked with the podcast host about what they did, and why people used dating coaches.
Brooklyn’s stomach was already starting to growl from hunger and the host sounded like he was about to wrap up when he lobbed something new at them.
“One last question before we wrap up for the day. I’ve noticed there has been a little talk growing online about you two,” he said.
“Really? Well, we have been gaining more clients lately; it’s natural that our company name would come up more.” Leah’s expression said she knew exactly what he meant, and wasn’t happy about it, even if her tone had been light-hearted.
“Actually, I was referring to the claims by some that neither of you has been in a committed relationship for quite some time,” he clarified. “I see a rebuttal from you that you’ve been dating someone for a while, but the original poster challenged that. Tell me, are you really dating someone?”
Brooklyn looked at Leah in panic.
The back door, leading directly into the office, opened as Leah chuckled lightly. “Honestly, I have no idea who is posting those comments. Neither Brooklyn nor myself is familiar with that name or face they are using, so I have no idea how they would know if we were dating or not, but of course we’re dating. We’re both pretty low-key people in our private lives, so anyone who didn’t know us well may not be aware of it.”
Brooklyn turned as the sound of male voices carried to her and she put a finger in front of her mouth to indicate the need for quiet as Wyatt, Leah’s cousin, entered. Right behind him was the tall, swarthy form of the hottie from the running trail.
She froze, and their eyes met. A smile was just beginning to bloom on his face when Brooklyn registered the question coming through her headset.
“What are their names?” the podcaster asked. “Surely you can tell us that much.”
Brooklyn looked back at Leah in time to see her best friend glance at the men just inside the door.
Leah’s voice cracked slightly as it did when she was trying to hide the truth. “I’m dating a man named Jackson, and Brooklyn is dating my cousin, Wyatt.”
It was all Brooklyn could do not to yelp in surprise. Wyatt? Why would she be dating Wyatt? She glanced back at the men and realized, with a sinking feeling, that the hottie must be Wyatt’s friend Jackson, who was coming over to talk about doing their commercial. Crap. Leah had just told the whole world she was dating Brooklyn’s crush.
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