I wiped down the counter for at least the tenth time. The circular motions were swift, curt, practically sanding the surface with each swipe of the soft cloth.
Fucking assholes better not leave all the cleaning to me again, I muttered as the sticky mess finally disappeared under soap suds. Damn new hires not doing the bare minimum…
“Hey Liv, missed ya last night,” Chef said over the clatter and clang of dishes, pots, and pans being put away. Cooks scurried behind him readying sauces and that goddamned romance risotto. The earthy, complex aroma wafted through the still-empty restaurant. “What’d ya get up to?”
“Nothing much,” I said. Nothing that was a damn bit of his business.
His gaze was as sharp as the cheddar he used for the lobster mac n cheese. “Uh-huh. Sure. Pretty lil’ thing like you. Up to nothing on a night off.”
“Dude, I work, like seventy-five hours a week between my two jobs. When I’m not working, I’m doing exactly no-thing. Kinda like the asshole newbs did last night for cleanup. So do you mind if I do their jobs now so the bar is ready for opening?”
For all that the kitchen was barely organized chaos, the stillness of the dining room wouldn’t last much longer. Our first reservations were always right at opening. Patrons were already lined up outside the door, even though tonight’s hostess, Evangeline, wouldn’t unlock them for at least another twenty minutes. And she rarely bothered to do so right on time, taking perverse pleasure as the grumbling increased.
Evangeline glanced over and raised a knowing, perfectly shaped, eyebrow. Fucking empaths. She maybe couldn’t read my mind exactly, but I was always on guard around her. She just always knew more than she should.
She was more than an empath, too, but I’d made my peace with that other part of her and mostly chose to ignore it.
Her night-red lips puckered as she blew me an air kiss, and she waggled her hot ass a little more than usual as she sauntered through the room, placing tonight’s specials just so on each table. It wasn’t for my benefit. Chef always set aside her favorites when she waltzed around in that little black dress. Any of them. And she seriously must have owned dozens.
Didn’t matter what Evangeline wore or how she changed her hair and makeup, she was as predictable as the thorns on a rose.
A chime from my phone shook me from my day dreams. A dream where I was myself. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Not that I could remember who that really was any more.
The details for this date were very specific. I sighed and got ready. It was hard for an actress to find work in this town full of pretty, talented, desperate young women.
What a girl had to do these days to make a living.
Thankfully I possessed skills that were rare. Not much help for my desired career, but at least it paid the bills.
I glanced at the photo on my phone, making sure my hair was just right. And the makeup. Believability was in the small details, the things that you only noticed if they were off. The wrong color nail polish. The wrong kind of earrings. The wrong style shoes.
I’d perfected the little details. One of the reasons I was always booked, usually weeks out. As many “dates” as I was willing to schedule. It wasn’t even difficult not to fall head over heels for my many, many dates. Never mind that I wasn’t interested in them, they didn’t actually want me. They merely wanted a performance. Dinner theater for two.
Sometimes it was almost fun.
Tonight was the most intriguing in a while, and it took a lot to stand out from the on-going monotony of nothing but first dates. First dates that were also last dates. And it wouldn’t do to be intrigued tonight any more necessary to get through dinner and move on to the next.
The full skirt of the bright red dress, color specifically requested, swung around my knees as I skipped down the steps. Just a few hundred more dates and maybe I could afford to move into a nicer place. Of course, to continue affording a nicer place, I’d have to keep doing this.
It was a vicious circle.
One of my own making.
I glanced at the address. I’d heard of this place (who hadn’t thanks to their reputation?) but had never been. The people who set up dates with me rarely picked a romantic setting for our … arrangement. They were already shelling out big bucks just for me to be with them, so most didn’t want to pay for anything more than coffee or occasionally fast food, so a real dinner in a nice place was a special treat.
One of the reasons I was intrigued.
For some reason, this date had me on the edge of a dull blade; it was going to hurt way more than if it was sharp.
Even though my date—I checked my phone again for his name—Charles got a reservation right at opening, there was a crowd waiting outside. Great.
It was so much easier to do this if I got there early and had a few minutes to get into character. That didn’t seem likely to happen given the grumbles of the others around me.
Stay focused, stay focused, I hummed to myself. Not like this hasn’t happened before.
The lock on the front door thunked and I allowed myself to get caught in the surge, going with the flow of suits and heels and wafts of too much perfume. The hostess, squeezed into a stunning little black dress, began the seating process for all those around me. As a single, I found myself overlooked time and again, until my lips tightened and I started picking at a cuticle.
“I am so sorry. People are just so pushy these days,” the hostess said, and flashed a rubies-and-pearls grin, while raising a knowing eyebrow. “What’s the reservation name? Or are you waiting for someone to join you?”
“I am meeting someone, but I’d like to be—”
The bell over the door tinkled and I involuntarily looked over my shoulder. A man came through the door. Not too tall. Not too short. Medium brown hair and eyes. In a dark gray suit with a blue shirt. Totally non-descript.
Charles. My date.
“Oh wow! Like, wow! I mean, I know what your profile on that app said you could do and all, but you really look just like her!”
“It’s what you asked for,” I said and returned my attention to the hostess. “I guess we’re both here.”
“Charles Morton?” My date nodded. “This way, please.”
She led us to a table off to one side, a two-top with a flickering candle and a little vase with red roses. Romantic. Like we were on a real date. “My name is Evangeline, and your server is Angelo. Please let either of us know if you need anything…” Her eyes lingered on mine for a moment, and she again raised that knowing eyebrow.
Charles helped me into my seat before taking his, then fiddled with his napkin and silverware. “So…”
I took a breath, the awkward song-and-dance familiar to me. Like my own face used to be. Before I honed my unique talents to take on the faces of other women, women who’d dumped these schmucks. Schmucks who couldn’t let those women have the last word. So they hired me to assume their ex’s image. All so they could do the breaking up. Or have one last fight. Whatever they needed to puff themselves up again.
“So, how do you want to do this?” I asked. Though we’d messaged a bit through the SoulLessMates app, Charles had remained vague as to how he wanted this date to proceed, constantly changing everything except the location. I almost cancelled at the last minute, but hey, a girl had to eat. “We can enjoy a nice meal together or—”
“It’s just, I mean, you look so much like Emma. The hair, the eyes, even the red dress, I thought maybe we could, I dunno…”
This happened like, one out of every ten or so. They thought they could pick up the relationship at the place just before it ended. But with me.
Shit. Shit. Shitty shit.
“Well, you did a great job sending me all those pictures, and the recording of her voice. So many helpful details,” I said.
And that was the truth. I’d gotten to know Emma over the past two weeks studying her pictures and anything I could find about her online. She was vibrant and adventurous, traveling all over the world. Always with girlfriends, though, or her sister. Never with Mr. Average across from me. I could imagine why she broke it off. She needed someone to match her zest, not dull her edge.
“But I’m not her,” I continued slowly, emphatically. “You need remember that. No matter who I look like. We’re not dating. Never have. We—”
“Good evening,” a voice interrupted. “I’m Angelo. Can I get any drinks going for you?”
“Vodka martini, please. With lemon instead of an olive,” I said. “Really cold.”
“Just water,” Charles mumbled.
“I’ll get that going. Now, did you want to order any starters at this time?” Angelo asked as he jotted down our drinks.
I gestured at Charles. It was on him how quickly he wanted to do this. He paused, then shrugged. “Yeah. Sure. How ‘bout some of that risotto you’re known for. Heard it’s really good.”
Angelo nodded once. “Absolutely. It’s good you got an early reservation. We run out sometimes. I’ll have your drinks brought over as soon as they’re ready. The risotto will be about fifteen minutes. In the meantime, I’ll bring over some bread and let you peruse the menu.”
Once he was gone, I stared at Charles, pasting on the same pleasant smile I’d seem Emma wearing in many of her pictures with him. “As I was saying. You need to remember that the two of us have never actually gone out. We don’t have a history longer than ten minutes.”
“Does that mean we can’t have dinner together?”
I unfolded the napkin and placed it on my lap. I really did like this dress a lot. Too bad it wasn’t in my actual size. Maybe I’d treat myself to another one that would actually fit. “I’d enjoy dinner,” I said. “But we need to talk about how this ends. It’s up to you if you want to make a big public scene or just have a quiet goodbye. I’ve done both and everything in-between. You won’t hurt my feelings, I promise. This is to help you… I dunno. Process, or get closure. It’s different for everyone.”
“I’m not really a big scene kinda guy,” he mumbled toward his menu.
“Quiet breakup it is. Say what you need to say, anything at all. I’m here to listen,” I reassured him, leaning in and resting my chin on folded hands. At this point, I’d sit through hours of grievances. Never mind that they weren’t about me, but as the cooks got busy in the back with the first of the night’s orders, the dining room filled with the most amazing aromas I’d ever experienced: roasting vegetables and a hot grill plus spices mixed with the fresh citrus zest from the bar.
“I don’t know where to start,” Charles said, pausing as the bartender delivered my martini. “We weren’t very good at talking,” he added, almost in a whine.
“Umm, okay. How about why you start with why chose this restaurant for tonight?” I suggested. It was rather unusual for a human to come in here. Most didn’t even know about it, in spite of its stellar reviews. Something about the place made humans’ gazes slide right over it. But not Charles.
I took a sip of my drink while waiting for him to formulate his answer. The martini was icy cold, with a faint hint of bitter citrus from the lemon. I was going to need more than one to get through the night. The more time I spent with Charles, the more I wanted to take a nap.
“A friend mentioned it once. Said it was good. Honestly, I’d never even noticed the place, even though I drive past here all the time. Same for Emma, but once she heard it was impossible to get in, it was all she wanted to do. Honestly, I made this reservation two months ago, to surprise her. Today would’ve been our six month anniversary.”
I almost choked as the alcohol burned my throat. Double shitty shit.
I coughed and took a sip of water. “Well, I’m glad to be here with you to work through all this. Actually, it’s a great way for you to get your frustrations out, you know. What did Emma do that pissed you off? Or annoyed you so much that you wanted to scream?”
Charles shrugged, the suit jacket bunching around his shoulders, like it didn’t fit properly. It probably wasn’t even his. “Nothing. She was perfect.”
“No one is perfect.”
“I guess she talked a lot. But I don’t usually have much to say, so it didn’t bother me.” Charles paused as Angelo placed the risotto on the table and set a small plates in front of each of us. I almost passed out from the rich, earthy smell of wild mushrooms and parmesan cheese.
“Would you like to order anything else?” the waiter asked.
“Charles, why don’t you go first,” I said, giving my date the option to stick with drinks and the risotto or drag this out through a full dinner. “I’ll have a decision made by then.”
“Guess I’ll have the burger and fries,” Charles said, still not looking at the waiter.
“And I’ll have the roasted veggies and tofu,” I said, remembering that Emma’s profile indicated she was a vegetarian. Not that it mattered. This is exactly what I would have ordered for myself. “Plus another martini, please.”
“I’ll get those out as soon as I can,” Angelo smiled, looking relieved that we weren’t a cheap ass table. I’d worked as a waitress in more than one town. I knew the look.
I spooned a heap of steaming risotto onto my plate and handed the serving spoon to Charles. Our fingers brushed and he caught my eyes, a shy smile breaking his otherwise blandly serious face.
“Sorry about that,” I said. “Now as I was saying, Emma was most definitely not perfect. No one is. She was a talker. What else?”
He moved the risotto around on his plate. Whatever. I dove in. It was divine. One of the best things I’d ever eaten. No way I was letting this dullard kill my appetite.
“Guess she wasn’t always around a lot, but I don’t like to travel, so I didn’t mind. I missed her, but we’d talk and she’d share her pictures, so it was kind of like I went to all those places.”
No. No it wasn’t, I wanted to scream.
But it wasn’t my job to get angry. He wanted a quiet breakup. That’s what I was getting paid for, to wear this face and body and help him through this.
Maybe I should go back to school and finish that psychology degree.
Through the rest of the meal, I dragged a few grievances from him: the talking, the traveling, the always going out. But he truly didn’t seem bothered by any of it.
Angelo stopped by with dessert menus, but by then I was not only full, but done. I’d only been Emma for a couple of hours and I didn’t understand how she’d lasted almost six months. Charles wasn’t a bad guy. He was nice. He was polite. He was probably tidy.
But he was boring as a stray dust bunny.
“Well, I guess this is it. Unless you want to really go for it,” I offered. It was no matter to me. I’d been yelled at by plenty of directors, fellow actors, and randos on the streets to not take offense at anything anymore.
“Umm, I don’t really know what else to say,” he stammered. “Are you sure you don’t want dessert? I don’t mind.”
Perhaps I’d channeled too much of Emma in the past couple weeks, but I stood up and pulled fingers through my hair. “Oh my god! Charles. Get upset or mad or something!” I spat.
He just sat, slumped a bit. “Yeah, she used to say that all the time. I guess you really understand her from the pictures and stuff, huh?”
I gaped, exasperated more than I’d ever been on one of these dates.
Most of the people I went out with were ready to tear me—well, me, as their ex—a new one, yelling, crying, blustering, recalling every fault and mistake. Healing. Moving on.
This guy. I wasn’t sure he minded being broken up with.
I was going to have to be careful he didn’t contact me again.
“You know what, I think this is where it ends. I hope you find what you’re looking for with someone else,” I said, perhaps louder than I should. The tables around us quieted for a moment before resuming their conversations. “Goodbye, Charles. Good luck. Don’t call me again.”
I stalked toward the door, fumbling to get into my jacket.
“Let me help with that,” the hostess said, holding the shoulder of my coat out so I could wiggle my arm into place. “This jacket is super cute,” she added.
“Thanks,” I said. “And for the help.”
“Couldn’t help but overhear,” she said. “Were you going out very long?”
“It was our first date,” I said. “I, uh, I help people when they’re like, heart broken or something. After they’ve broken up with someone. Give them some closure.”
“Damn! That’s clever! But how do you not fall for some of them?”
“It’s just a job. Most are a lot faster—and angrier—than this.”
“That so?” Her lips pressed together, like she expected me to say more, reveal some secret. “You know, this is the first time I’ve heard of someone like us doing that…” She winked.
“Us?” I was many things, but like this gorgeous woman I was not, certainly not in my real form. Then I realized she thought I looked like Emma, who was almost as stunning as the hostess. Evangeline, I remembered.
She leaned closer, her face shifting—nose, eyes, ears, bubbling from one shape to the next to the next until they settled again on the perfection she’d started with. “My mom was a telepath. My dad a shifter. Got a bit of both their talents.”
Another shifter? I didn’t know many, not since moving away from home where most of my neighborhood had been shifters.
Evangeline’s voice lowered, “I think I sense that maybe you like me as much as I like you…”
My heart paused the tentative pitter patter that tickled my stomach, then became the thudding stomps of dinosaurs. She only liked me as Emma. I was… as ordinary as Charles. I started to protest, but her lips touched my ear as she whispered. “Rosie, through all of your disguises, I see you.”
The door tinkled that someone was coming.
She kissed me on the cheek, butterfly soft, then straightened and winked. “Welcome. What’s the name on your reservation?”
She saw me. And liked me.
Just Rosie. Simple. Plain. Rosie.
No one had said that in a long time.
I sighed and relaxed, letting the façade fall for the first time in weeks, showing the real me. The curly brown hair. The ordinary brown eyes. The slightly soft hips and small boobs. The chestnut skin. I pulled the jacket closer to hid the now ill-fitting red dress.
Evangeline returned from seating the couple, her red lips pulling into a large grin of happiness.
“See, Rosie. You’re gorgeous just the way you really are.”
After shooing the last of the guests out with her powerful glares, Evangeline locked the doors and skipped over, a feat in those ridiculous heels. I didn’t know how she stood around in those blasted things all night, but shift after shift, she paraded around in stilts and a smile. And never seemed to get so much as a blister or ingrown toenail.
I’d take my boots or Chucks any night.
“Got any Champagne or Prosecco open?” she asked, leaning over the bar and showing off her ample cleavage. Not that it had any effect on me, but hey, who wouldn’t pause to admire perfection like that when it was all-but shoved into one’s face?
“Uh… yeah, about half a bottle. Help yourself. It’s pretty good stuff, but it won’t keep ‘til tomorrow. Over there,” I said and continued doing a proper job cleaning up for the night.
“Thanks, Liv!” She hummed as she poured two flutes and carefully set up a candle and vase of flowers at one end of the bar.
I hid a smile by turning to wipe down the other counter. She’d sunk her thorns into someone.
“Don’t touch that,” she said and disappeared into the kitchen, returning a moment later with a short, average looking woman.
“Are you sure this is okay?” the woman asked.
“Totally! Right, Liv?”
“Fine with me. I’m heading out soon anyway.”
The woman shrugged out of her very cute jacket. The bright red dress looked familiar. Huh… I kind of remembered seeing it on a patron earlier tonight. But totally not this woman. She’d been taller, blonde. A stunner, not a notch above average. With some basic looking guy. Vodka martini with lemon… and the risotto.
I opened my senses, looking beyond the surface.
Ah. A shifter.
My heart thudded, and I had to take several deep breaths to calm the furious bats in my stomach. I fucking hated most shifters. How could you trust someone who could be anyone? But as I watched Evangeline and this woman scooting closer to each other, I sighed.
She seemed okay. And I’d gotten used to all the other monsters and creatures around me night after night. They probably thought I was one of them…
Guess there really was something about the risotto. You just couldn’t predict who you might fall in love with after eating it.
I’d made the right choice working here. Someone had to keep things in check.
Find Jill in all these places:
And follow The Accidental Magic Project: