Emma Frazier is smart, hardworking, and loves her job as a journalist for a Florida lifestyle magazine. Emma knows she’s no great beauty, but she’s pretty certain she has a shot with her handsome new boss, Ben Gallagher—until Emma overhears a mutual acquaintance refer to her as the “ugly friend.” In an effort to reclaim her battered self-esteem, Emma decides to impress Ben at work by promising an exclusive interview with NASCAR legend, Trip Monroe.
Emma and Trip went to high school together and although it’s been fourteen years since they’ve spoken, Emma is certain she can score an interview with the elusive super star. But connecting with Trip turns out to be harder than Emma imagined. Her quest for the interview leads her back to her tiny hometown of Catfish Cove, where old secrets and a new romantic interest shake up Emma’s views on life and teach her that maybe the key to finding true love is as simple as accepting yourself for the person you were always meant to be.
I open the door to Captain Pete’s, the new “it” club in Ybor City, and am immediately reminded of that famous bar scene from Star Wars. Except in this scenario, I am the alien and everyone else is normal.
“Why is your hair wet?” Torie asks the second she sees me.
Kimberly stares at me in horror. “You look like a drowned rat.”
The bar is incredibly crowded even for a Friday evening and I have to strain to hear them above the noise. Someone male and reeking of Hugo Boss bumps into me but doesn’t stop to apologize.
“In case neither of you noticed, it’s raining outside,” I say.
“Emma,” Torie says, “that’s what valet parking is for.”
“It’s no biggie.” I pull the ends of my dark hair forward to wring the water out. “I’m exhausted, so I’m only staying for one drink.”
“One drink?” Torie frowns at me and gives Kimberly a look I can’t interpret except to say that they are both up to something, which usually does not bode well for me. Torie and Kimberly are terrific friends, but they are constantly trying to fix me up because they don’t think I’m aggressive enough to find a guy on my own.
I signal the bartender. He ignores me and moves to another customer before finally taking my order.
The guy who bumped into me earlier finagles his way onto the edge of our group. He points to the nearly empty beer in Torie’s hand. “Looks like you need a refill.”
Torie smiles brightly. “Thanks, maybe later?”
This is Torie’s standard spiel. She never shoots a guy down completely, because as she likes to say, “You never know.”
Hugo Boss smiles back. Disappointed, but not discouraged.
Stuff like this happens a lot to Torie. Unlike Kimberly, Torie is not a classic beauty, but she gets hit on more than Kimberly and me combined. I think this is because while Torie is pretty and has a great figure, the real attraction is that she exudes a combination of confidence and accessibility. Only the really cocky guys make a play for Kimberly. As for me, I admit to getting a lot of their leftovers.
“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Hugo Boss asks me.
I really shouldn’t reward him by validating this cheesiest of all pickup lines but I can’t help but be sympathetic to his plight. While he’s not exactly cute, he’s not a dog either. Plus, we are here to meet men.
“Somewhere sounds a little generic,” I say, trying to give him an in. “Maybe you could be more specific?”
Before he can respond, Kimberly pulls me away. “Thanks, but she’s not interested,” she says over her shoulder.
Hugo Boss shrugs, as if to say no biggie.
“Kimberly,” I hiss, “that’s kind of rude.”
“Forget about him! We dropped by your office on the way here.”
Let me tell you about my job.
I work for Dunhill Publications, which owns Florida! (yes, with an exclamation point) magazine, where I’ve been employed for the past six years as a journalist. Florida! is a high-end publication dedicated to celebrating the beauty and uniqueness of the Florida lifestyle (that’s our tagline). I worked as a freelancer for almost four years before I was hired full-time. It might not sound like a dream job, but I love it. Each magazine is a like a work of art. Great photos, great stories.
“You came by the office? Where was I?”
“Ben,” Kimberly says, emphasizing my boss’s name in a way that makes me twitchy, “said you were out running errands.”
Torie sniffs. “Without an umbrella, obviously.”
I ignore Torie’s little barb. Up to now, neither Torie nor Kimberly had met Ben, who only joined the staff at Florida! six months ago. Ben came to Florida! from Newsweek. He’s lived in New York and has traveled all over the world. How he ended up at Florida! I’m not sure, because although Florida! is an awesome magazine, it certainly can’t compare to the glamour of a publication like Newsweek. But whatever made Ben land here inTampa, I’m grateful. Ben is a brilliant editor and I’ve really grown under his tutelage. I’m dying to ask the girls what they think of him, but I bite my tongue.
“We invited your sexy boss to go out with us tonight,” says Torie. “He should be here any minute.”
This seemingly benign statement causes my beer to go down the wrong way.
“Are you okay?” Kimberly slaps me on the back.
Hugo Boss turns around to see me choking and slips into the crowd without looking back. So much for chivalry . . .
“Raise your arms above your head,” instructs Torie.
What this will do, I’m not sure, but it works. I take a deep breath and try to calm myself. I’ve been secretly in love with Ben Gallagher since the day he told me his favorite word was ubiquitous.
This is how it happened.
Ben had been working at Florida! for about a month. The two of us were alone in his office discussing an article, when out of the blue, I blurted, “What’s your favorite word in the whole world?”
Without blinking, skipping a beat, or even pausing to frown, he turned to me and said, “Ubiquitous.” He then continued talking about the article as if we’d never had the exchange. I know this might sound dumb, but put in that same scenario, 99.9 percent of the population would have looked at me and said, “What?” for going off subject like that. But not Ben, because he totally gets me.
Ben is everything a guy you hope to fall in love with should be. He’s handsome (but not too handsome), smart, has a great laugh, and is kind to animals. I know this last part because a couple of months ago a stray cat wandered off the street into our office. The cat was kind of mangy and looked like he hadn’t had a meal in days. Richard, a fellow journalist at Florida! (more on Richard later) immediately called Animal Control, which took the cat away. The next day Ben called the shelter and asked them to notify him if they planned to put the cat down, which, of course, is exactly what they were going to do. Ben drove to the shelter and adopted the cat, even though he is not a cat person. The cat’s name is Lucky (pretty appropriate if you ask me). Personally, I think the whole cat adoption story speaks volumes on Ben’s character.
Ben is also originally from Boston, which I totally love. While this might not sound exotic, for me, a rube from small-town Florida, cities like Boston and New York and Chicago hold some mysterious appeal. I’ve been to New York a few times. Once with my moms after I graduated high school, and a couple of times with Torie and Kimberly for a girls’ weekend. I don’t think I’d want to live there, but I’d love to say that I’m from there. It sounds so much more sophisticated than saying I was raised in Catfish Cove, Florida.
I envision my first date with Ben like this: He picks me up at my town house in his Toyota Prius (Ben is a member of the Sierra Club, another thing I love about him) and we go to a quaint little restaurant no one has ever heard of, but where the food is terrific. The owner greets Ben by name because Ben has discovered this fabulous restaurant that no one else knows about and the two of them have become chums. He orders the second-least-inexpensive bottle of wine on the menu and we begin a three-hour dinner that seems to go by in minutes because our conversation is so enthralling.
Afterward, we hit an independent bookstore where we peruse the aisles—poetry for me, natural history for Ben. Next, we take a walk along Bayshore Avenue. In the middle of the walk, Ben stops. He tenderly takes off my glasses, cups my face, and says, “Emma, is it all right if I kiss you?” While this might sound corny, it’s something I’ve always dreamed of a guy saying to me, so it’s definitely included in my perfect date scenario.
Even though we are surrounded by people, we kiss like we don’t care who sees. Ben then whispers that he’s dying to sleep with me (this is something else I’ve always dreamed a guy would say to me), only he won’t because he doesn’t want us to rush things, and I agree. I don’t sleep with Ben until our fifth date and it’s utterly perfect. He proposes on our tenth date and—
Okay, maybe I’d gotten a little ahead of myself.
“I hope you don’t mind about Ben,” Kimberly says, snapping me back to reality.
“Mind? Why should I mind? It’ll be fun.”
“Admit it, Emma, you have a crush on him.”
Torie playfully punches me in the shoulder. “And we’re going to help you do something about that.”
“I do not have a crush on him!”
Torie and Kimberly stare me down.
After about four seconds, I sigh because it’s pointless. They have always seen right through me. As a matter of fact, anyone who knows me for more than a minute can see right through me too. I have the kind of face that mirrors exactly what I’m feeling. Please, don’t ever take me to Vegas.
“You could have warned me you invited Ben to go out with us.” I came here straight from work, so I have on the same khaki pants and sensible black flats I’ve worn all day. I’m not going to stand out among the push-up-bra-and-stiletto crowd. I’m pretty sure Ben is above all that, but still, it couldn’t hurt to have changed into something more flattering.
“How were we to know you’d come here with wet hair?” says Torie. “And ditch the glasses.”
Frankly, I’m not too worried about my hair. It’s my best feature. It’s shoulder length and straight, but it’s thick and dries pretty much the same as if I’d spent a half hour blow-drying and styling it. Plus it’s a shade of brown that’s very in right now. Think Sandra Bullock hair. The rest of me, though, is kind of average. I probably fall somewhere between a five on a bad night and a seven when I’m really working it. Ben is a solid seven (remember, he’s handsome, but not too handsome), so he’s on the higher end of my scale, but I don’t think I’m totally out of his league. I know Torie called him sexy, but I’m pretty sure he’s not the kind of guy who walks into a bar and has women fall all over him.
I’m about to go to the bathroom to freshen up my makeup when I spot Ben. He sees me and heads our way. I’ve never seen Ben outside of work before. He’s wearing jeans and a black polo shirt. I watch as he cuts his way through the crowd with confidence. Men step to the side to let him through, and women . . .
Crap. I was wrong.
Ben is not a seven. He’s not even an eight.
Ben is an undisputable nine.