Maddie Forest didn’t want to go to this birthday party. She didn’t like parties in the first place— they were always too loud, there were always annoying people who she had to pretend to be nice to, and there were never enough snacks. But she especially didn’t want to go to Theo Stephens’s party. It was likely to be as boring, self- important, and pedantic as the guest of honor.
But, unfortunately, one of Theo’s best friends was her best friend, Alexa, and Alexa had asked Maddie to come with her to the party. Alexa’s brief fling with some doctor in L.A. had just ended badly, and Maddie could tell she was still upset about it. So instead of being either snug at home in a caftan watching House Hunters and eating delivery pizza, or out somewhere with Alexa, drinking wine and eating fancy pizza, she was looking for parking in one of the worst neighborhoods in San Francisco in which to find parking.
“Don’t worry, we don’t have to stay all night,” Alexa said as they circled the block. “I know you’d rather be watching HGTV, but I couldn’t skip Theo’s birthday and I wasn’t in the mood to come alone.”
Alexa must have been desperate to have her there, because she’d told Maddie if she came, she would wear whatever Maddie wanted. There were few things Maddie loved more than when she got to style conservative Alexa in something edgy and force her to branch out.
“I’ll protect you from the bros. Just give me the nod whenever you want to take off,” Maddie said.
“Not all of Theo’s friends are bros!” Alexa said. “Not even most of them. There are just a few who rub me the wrong way. His brother should be there tonight— he’s kind of a bro, but also hilarious
and Theo’s opposite. You’ll like him. Anyway, thanks for coming. I know this isn’t really your thing.”
Maddie sped up as she spotted a parking space down the street. “You’ll pay me back for this next time I need a buddy. Just don’t make me wear a shift dress and a cardigan that time, please.”
Alexa looked down at herself as Maddie pulled into the parking spot.
“Speaking of, are you sure about this outfit? I have way too much cleavage with this dress.”
Maddie turned off the car. Too much cleavage? Please. Alexa had been corrupted by her conservative work wardrobe, and now she thought even the hint of a breast was shocking in public, especially
if she was around people who knew she was the chief of staff to the mayor. Her dress had barely any cleavage, come on. Well. Okay. That wasn’t quite true. But it was barely any cleavage in comparison to other dresses Maddie could have put her in.
“I’m very sure. I’m a professional, remember? That dress has just the right amount of cleavage for a Saturday night out at a bar.”
She checked her makeup in her car mirror. Yes, she’d put the perfect amount of highlighter on her brown skin; just enough so she looked like she’d been at the beach earlier that day, but not so
much that she looked like C- 3PO.
She got out of the car and linked arms with Alexa.
“And stop tugging at that dress. You look fantastic. Let’s go dazzle these men.”
When they walked into the bar, Maddie surveyed the crowd. Lots of jeans and hoodies, as she’d suspected. She shook her head and followed Alexa to the back of the bar, where the party presumably
was. Oh, yep, there was Theo. The one good thing about Theo: you could always count on him to dress well. He had on well- fitting dark jeans and a soft blue button- down. He greeted Alexa with a big hug.
“You made it!”
“Happy birthday! I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Alexa said as she hugged him back.
Theo pulled back from Alexa and saw Maddie, and the grin dropped from his face.
“Maddie.” He nodded at her. “Thanks for coming.”
“Theo.” She nodded back. Ugh, she guessed she had to say it.
He raised his eyebrows and smirked at her.
“Thanks. I’m delighted you’re here.”
She and Theo both knew he was as delighted to have her here as she was to be here. She’d first met Theo three years before, at Alexa’s birthday party. Theo had recently started as the mayor’s communications director, and when Maddie had seen both how cute he was and his excellent pin- striped shirt, she’d thought maybe there might finally be a spark between her and one of Alexa’s nerdy friends. She could not have been more wrong.
After a few minutes of chat about what kind of pizza and beer they should order, she’d asked him where he’d been before coming to the mayor’s office. Theo had sat up a little straighter. “Well, after I left Harvard,” he’d started. Ugh, of course he was that guy. He went on to talk for ten straight minutes about himself. Finally, he’d climbed out of his own asshole and asked her where she went to college. When she’d said she’d started at the local community college and then moved on to UCLA, he responded with, “Good for you!” in the most condescending way possible. Then he asked what she did. When she told him she was in the process of starting her own personal styling business, he’d asked, “Why would anyone pay you to help them get dressed?”
She’d looked at him and smiled.
“You know, I couldn’t decide how you’d react to that. I was torn between condescending to me about my career, or mansplaining my job to me. Considering the rest of our conversation, it was touch and go which one it would be, but you landed on the first. Congratulations, I guess, on being so predictable.”
While he tried to find a comeback, she’d moved to the other side of the table to talk to someone else. She didn’t often let herself be that bitchy anymore, but few things infuriated her more than
when people looked down on her job. They’d barely spoken to each other since that night, even though they were both frequently in the same room because of Alexa. Why she was so close to Theo, Maddie would never understand. Maddie shrugged. She didn’t care about Theo or any of his ill- dressed friends; she was just here to help her best friend recover from that Drew guy she’d clearly liked a lot more than she was willing to admit.
“Who wants a drink?” Theo asked.
Alexa’s hand shot in the air.
“I’m not as quick on the draw as Hermione over here, but I want one, too,” Maddie said. If she was going to be here, she might as well get a free drink out of this. Theo put his arm around Alexa and started walking toward the bar, leaving Maddie to follow them.
“Come with me. The bartender is supposed to be serving my friends first, but we’ll see if that actually works.”
Five minutes later, both she and Alexa had gin and tonics in their hands. Thank God they did, because Alexa forced her to circulate around the party.
“Come on, there’s good networking here! See, I told you not all of Theo’s friends are bros; there are lots of women here. I bet you a drink you can pick up a client or two at this party. Did you bring
your business cards?”
Maddie rolled her eyes at her best friend as she pulled her card case out of her jacket pocket. “You trained me well. Of course I brought them.”
She followed Alexa around the room and watched her network.
“Four weddings to go to in the next month? Oh God, I’ve been there!” Alexa said to the girlfriend of some friend of Theo’s.
“Thank God I had Maddie— I had no idea what to wear to any of those weddings, and now with Instagram, you can’t wear the same dress to all four weddings or people will think you only own
one dress. Maddie helped me find outfits and negotiate all of the weird dress codes people come up with.”
“Oh my God, the dress codes!” the woman said. “What does ‘beach chic’ mean? Or ‘farm formal’? Those are just two of the annoying dress codes for these weddings, and I have no idea what these
people want from me. Just tell me if I need to wear a cocktail dress or if I can wear a sundress! Heels or cute sandals or comfortable sandals? I don’t know!” The woman turned to Maddie. “So what is
it you do? Is she right that you know what these dress codes mean?”
Maddie launched into her elevator pitch.
“I’m a stylist, which means I help people find outfits for all sorts of events, whether it’s work or weddings or anything in between. And yes, I’ve successfully dressed clients for those exact dress codes
and ones that sounded even wackier.”
Alexa grinned at Maddie. See, this was when having a wing woman was key. Who cared about having one to help out with men? It was for this kind of stuff where having Alexa by her side and pumping her up was most important. Alexa walked off to join Theo, while Maddie went in for the kill.
Ten minutes later, Maddie presented Alexa with a gin martini.
“We have an appointment next week,” she said. “Thanks for that.”
Alexa grinned back at her. Just then, a tall white guy in a button- down shirt, who was way too attractive for his own good, came up to their group. Oh God, yet another bro.
Wait a minute. From the look on Alexa’s face, this wasn’t just yet another bro. Why did she have that look on her face for some guy that Maddie didn’t recognize?
“Drew? What are you doing here?”
This was Drew? No wonder Alexa had been so upset when their thing had fizzled out.
Maddie looked from Alexa to Drew. It was her turn to be a wing woman. She plucked Alexa’s martini out of her hand, grabbed Theo by the arm, and pulled him over to the other side of the bar.
“Who the hell is that, and why did you . . . Oh!” Theo stared at Alexa and Drew, who had moved into the far corner of the bar.
“That guy she went to the wedding with?”
At least Theo caught on quickly.
“Yeah, it’s definitely that guy,” Maddie said.
“What’s he doing here?” Theo asked.
Maddie sipped Alexa’s abandoned martini.
“I have no idea, but he sure seemed happy to see her.”
Theo turned to her.
“Do you think she’s okay over there? Do we need to go rescue her?”
The one good thing Maddie could say about Theo was she knew he was firmly on Team Alexa. Maddie looked over to the corner of the bar. Alexa did not look like she wanted or needed rescuing. At least, for now.
“She’s okay. She knows we’re here if she needs us.”
Neither of them moved. They obviously had to stay close by. Just in case Alexa needed them. But they couldn’t keep staring at Alexa and Drew; that was creepy. They both turned away from the
corner of the room at the same time and looked at each other.
Maddie tried to think of something to say.
“So, Maddie,” Theo said, “watching any good TV lately?”
She spent a moment trying to decide if she should give him the real answer and let him make fun of her, or list all the boring and stressful prestige TV shows she knew a pretentious guy like Theo
would be into, just so she didn’t have to deal. Sure, she wouldn’t be able to have a conversation about any of those shows about terrible men doing terrible things in very poorly lit rooms, but men usually didn’t care about having an actual conversation about their favorite TV shows; they just wanted you to listen to them talk about them. Hell with it. She didn’t care enough about Theo’s opinion of her to lie to him.
“I watch a lot of House Hunters these days, actually.”
He laughed. Served her right for actually engaging in conversation with Theo.
“I love House Hunters,” he said. Wait, what? “I’m kind of obsessed with it. The people infuriate me, and look, I know the whole thing is fake, but I don’t care!”
That was a surprise.
“You? Watching House Hunters? You don’t spend all your time watching C- SPAN or documentaries or all of those shows about drug dealers or whatever?”
He shook his head.
“I deal with enough depressing and stressful stuff at work.” He took a sip of his drink and shrugged. “Okay, fine, I have been known to watch a documentary or two in my time, but . . .”
Maddie pointed at him.
“I knew it!”
He shook his head and put his hand on her shoulder.
“But, as I was saying, I only do that when I’m in a really bad mood and want to lean into it. Otherwise, it’s lots of house shopping and renovating shows. I find them so soothing.”
Well, that was something she never would have expected to find out tonight.
“There you are!” A black guy in jeans, a black T- shirt, and very cool sneakers bounded over to them. “Happy birthday, dude.”
“Oh, so my little brother finally shows up,” Theo said as he smacked hands with his brother. “How many hours late are you this time?”
“Hours?” The brother looked at Maddie for support. “Back me up on this, beautiful woman I’ve never met before— I’m, like, barely an hour late.”
Maddie grinned despite herself. Theo’s brother had definitely gotten the lion’s share of the family charm.
“ Well . . . as much as I want to be on your side here, brother of Theo whose name I don’t know, from what I was told, the party started at eight, and it’s now almost ten, so . . .”
“That’s ridiculous. No party starts at eight. No brother of mine would have a party that started at eight. You must be mistaken.”
He reached out and shook her hand.
“And I’m Benjamin Stephens, but my friends all call me Ben, and I hope you and I will be friends.”
“Maddie, this is my brother, Ben. He’s shameless. Please feel free to ignore or snub or smack him whenever he says something worthy of one of those things. Ben, this is Maddie. She’s Alexa’s friend. Please don’t embarrass me more than you already have.”
Ben slapped his brother on the back and grinned at Maddie.
“Anything for you on your birthday. Speaking of, what are you drinking? I’ll get you another.”
Ben turned and looked over at the bar “Oh, wow, they have some great bourbon here!” He made a beeline for the bar without waiting to hear Theo’s answer. Theo opened his mouth to shout after him, then shook his head and turned back to Maddie.
“Well, that’s my brother. I swear he’s not always like that.”
Theo shook his head. “He’s usually worse.”
Maddie looked at Theo’s brother, now talking animatedly to the bartender.
“He seems like a lot of fun . . . in small doses.”
“He’s a lot of fun in big doses, too; it’s just that I usually need to sleep for three days after a night of drinking with him. That time we went to Vegas together . . .” Theo let out a long breath. “I think
I didn’t leave my apartment for a solid week afterward.”
Maddie was just about to ask another question when Theo’s eyes widened and he nudged her. She looked around, just in time to see Alexa and Drew walking toward them, holding hands. She
turned back to Theo and widened her eyes at him and nudged him back.