Page 13 of Eight Dates

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“Oh, ahalfguy. He’s gonna have a Napoleon complex,” Nova warned.

Ben knew. But he was shorter than five eleven, so at least he’d make the guy feel tall. “Let’s just hope he doesn’t order wings.”

Nova laughed. “Let’s just hope my emergency-on-the-fly game is as strong tonight as it was last night. How’s the apartment, by the way?”

“Not even a singe, so at least we didn’t have to pay a cosmic price for the lie,” Ben said. He glanced at the time on his dash and sighed. It was time to go. He backed out of the space, and as he did, Nova leaned forward.

“Hey. There’s lights on in that window!”

Ben glanced up, then smiled. “That’s my office. My chanukiah.”

“Wow. It’s really pretty,” Nova told him softly. He smiled, and Ben’s heart did a funny little leap, but he ignored it in favor of getting on with his weird and hopefully not-quite-terrible night.

* * *

Ben dropped Nova off around the back of the pub before pulling into a parking space, and then he sat there like he had the night before, trying to quell the urge to panic. He checked his phone once more, but his texts to Aaron were still unread, which meant his brother was probably avoiding him.

He opened up the dating app again and scrolled through Mark’s profile in hopes that something else was there that he’d missed. A red flag. A green flag. It didn’t matter. He just wanted some idea of what he was getting into because the dinner with Chaz had been too damn much. No relationship was worth putting up with a guy like that.

He’d already been there and done that with his shit-for-brains ex. He didn’t need round two.

Or round eight, if his brother’s track record was anything to go by.

But he wanted to have some faith. There was no way that Aaron would have stumbled on more than a couple of absolutely garbage human beings all in a row. Was there? God, he—

Ben jumped at the sound of someone rapping knuckles on his window, and he peered out the window to find a stocky man with dark hair poking out of a beanie. He couldn’t get a good look at him apart from his big eyes, so he rolled down his window a few inches.

“Are you Ben?”

“Um. Yes?” He took a shot in the dark, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to hit his target or not. “Mark?”

“Yeah. Sorry, I saw you sitting here, and I thought maybe you were gonna bolt.”

Ben flushed and quickly shook his head. “No. I just don’t normally do the blind date thing”—and the night before had been a total shit-show—“so was kind of looking for my courage.”

“I know what you mean,” Mark said. His voice was soft, and his smile was kind, and Ben felt himself relax a fraction. “We can reschedule if that’s easier for you. I’m kind of busy this time of year, but I’m sure we can figure it out.”

Ben quickly shook his head. “No, no. I promise, I was just taking a moment. Let’s go in.”

His heart was buoyed a little as he turned off his car and stepped out into the cold. Mark was just a few inches taller than him, and he was wrapped in a puffy jacket. He stayed in close as they walked to the door, but he didn’t try to get handsy, and Ben let himself relax a little more as they approached the hostess stand.

It was the same woman from the night before, and she gave him a pointed, curious look but said nothing as she led them to the same table. This time, Ben took a seat neither he nor Chaz had occupied, and Mark took the one across from him.

Ben watched as Mark shed his jacket, revealing a button-up and a sweater vest. A man after his own heart. He smiled. “So,” he said.

“Well,” Mark added at the same time.

They both chuckled, and Ben waved his hand. “You go.”

There was something a little strange about Mark’s smile. Like it was just on the edge of being forced. But Ben could easily chalk that up to nerves, considering the way he was feeling them, and he had no idea if Mark had also been through the wringer with all the Chazes out there.

“This is awkward,” Mark said, then bit his lip for a second. “I’m sure you saw on my profile that I’m currently an indie filmmaker.”

“Right,” Ben told him.

“So, if we’re going to do more than apps and drinks, I’d prefer to split the check.”

Ben blinked. “Oh, uh. No, yeah. That’s fine. I’m not actually very hungry anyway, but I’m happy to pick up the tab.”