“I’m sorry, but”—It was the third time Charlie had said those exact words since they'd arrived, and Harper knew what would come next just as well as she knew the furrow in his brow hadn't yet disappeared as he studied their unfamiliar surroundings—“how do you know this person again?”
The first two times he'd asked, Harper had rolled her eyes and told him he needed to get out more. It was easier to get him out on the town now that he wasn’t constantly catering to Rick’s whims—to say nothing of Harper’s own newfound availability—but they didn’t have so many friends that parties like this one were their usual scene. Actually, parties in general weren’t their usual scene. Give them a five dollar pizza and Mike’s Netflix password, and they were golden. Still, it wasn't as if they'd suddenly found themselves on an alien planet. A loft—albeit one that could probably fit her and Charlie's apartments with room left over, not to mention its view of the Hudson and the fact that one of Harper's friends had bought (Bought! With actual, real money!) it—was nothing to get all tied up over.
This time, however, she couldn't help but think her boyfriend and his innate skepticism were on to something.
In sync, his and Harper’s heads turned to track the progress of the honest-to-god actual Daphne Kluger through the crowded loft. She was just one of many guests in attendance at this housewarming—loftwarming? Was that even a thing? Becca would probably know—but she was hard to miss. More importantly, even dressed down and circulating amidst the crowd, smiling and chatting as if really was just a normal person and not one of the most bankable actresses in Hollywood, she was impossible to ignore.
Harper almost came close to managing it, though. Working at Line Up hadn't quite cured her of all her celebrity-related awe, but living in New York did the rest. She'd lost track of the number of times she'd stood in line for coffee behind someone she'd just seen on the cover of a magazine at the bodega down the street. Truly, this place was the city of dreams.
She took a swig from her beer and pretended she wasn't having a mini internal meltdown. Charlie, however, kept on staring.
Oh, he was totally gonna blow their cover as regular, totally well-adjusted people who didn't freak out over celebrity sightings if he kept that up.
Racking her brain for a distraction, Harper settled on the truth.
“She stole my wallet once.”
It took a moment for him to recall he'd even asked a question and this was his answer, but she had faith in that big brain of his. He'd work it out.
And he did.
Abruptly, Charlie stopped ogling Daphne Kluger and a dress that had to have been designed to draw every eye in any room. Harper had always subscribed to the belief that no one looked as good in real life as they did on TV or in movies; seeing the way this dress so clearly loved every curve and plane on Daphne's body, though, she might have to rethink that position.
He wheeled on Harper, all thoughts about Daphne Kluger's ass clearly out the window. “And you’re friends with her?”
Harper shrugged. “She gave it back.”
It was a sign of how much he’d unwound since they started dating that Charlie only stared at her like she’d grown one extra head instead of three. Harper didn’t particularly mind. In fact, she was slightly disappointed. She thought for sure that'd get more of a reaction. This was one of her favorite games to play. Charlie was so easy to scandalize, it never got old. Ah, well. She'd figure out a way to blow his mind before the end of the night.
"After she stole it," Charlie repeated, as if he didn't think his girlfriend remembered the words that had just come out of her mouth. To be fair, sometimes Harper got so caught up in an argument or a story or a pitch for an article that she really didn't pay attention to the things she was saying. Words came out and then disappeared into the world; if someone else wasn't listening, it was like she'd never said them at all.
"It wasn't like there was anything in there. Aside from coffee receipts and credit card debt. Maybe it would've been a good thing if she'd stolen my credit card," she mused, only half-way joking. She and Becca had been on a serious designer cupcake spiral at the time; "losing" her wallet could have definitely saved her a few sugar crashes and ill-advised charges.
Charlie just shook his head, no doubt wondering—fondly; well, it had better be fond—how he'd ended up with her, and turned his attention back to the other party-goers. There were quite a few that were worth the scrutiny.
Daphne Kluger excluded, the guest list wasn’t exactly a who’s who of New York’s rich and beautiful—how else could Harper have scored an invite? She may have finally said goodbye to the assistant life, but freelance living wasn't much of a step up—but there was something to be said for novelty. Anyone who wasn’t Duncan, Becca, or Mike was worthy of their attention.
“C’mon,” Harper wheedled, hooking her arm through Charlie’s and batting her eyelashes up at him. He rolled his eyes, but he was definitely biting down on a grin, too. “Is making friends with my pickpocket any weirder than how you made friends with any of your lacrosse frat bros?”
“You know I didn’t actually play lacrosse, right?”
“But you were totally in a frat.”
Charlie didn’t get a chance to defend himself or his misguided collegiate choices because their host chose that moment to roll up to them.
On a skateboard that looked significantly less beat up than the one Harper had last seen, Constance coasted through the crowd only to pull up short when she caught sight of Harper and Charlie. She stepped off the board and flipped the deck up into her hand in one easy motion. The sports reporter in Harper admired how smoothly she’d done it in such a crowded space. Not for the first time, she wished that Constance’s quick hands were newsworthy instead of accessories to God knew how many crimes.
(Technically, that made them newsworthy, it just wasn't the kind of news Harper was interested in writing, which she assumed was why Constance put up with her)
“Girl!” Constance crowed, initiating a complex handshake that Harper had never managed to get down. Her awkward fumbling didn’t put her friend off any judging by the wide grin on her face or the one-armed hug she offered when they were done. “You made it! Thought for sure your boss would have you chained to your desk or sneaking into locker rooms for a scoop or something.”
“Nope,” Harper said, still basking in the pride of having left Line Up. Pride might be the furthest thing from her mind when she checked her bank account lately, but she was going to cling to the few bits of it that she had left. “I’m a free woman now. Well, freelance, at least."
“Freelance, huh?” Constance gave this more thought than Harper really thought it deserved, her mouth quirking to the side as she mulled this new information over. Harper was on the verge of filling the resultant silence with nervous chatter when her friend nodded decisively and glanced sidelong at Charlie. She quickly gave up on subtlety and treated him to an obvious once-over. Her head had to tilt back further than Harper's did to even come close to looking him in the eye. Once she’d completed her perusal, she turned back to Harper, one dark eyebrow raised. “Seems like you’ve been putting all that free time to good use."
“Oh.” A flush burned across Harper’s cheeks, and she looked down at her feet to hide it. When she looked up, however, there was no hiding her bright grin. "This is Charlie. He’s my, uh—“
“I’m the boyfriend,” he said, almost smooth. He stuck out his hand to shake, but Constance just used it to pull him into an enthusiastic hug. Clearly taken aback by her show of strength, Charlie’s eyes widened as he was jerked down, his hands fluttering awkwardly before settling to gingerly pat her back.
“Hey, man, bring it in,” Constance said, giving him a thump of his own with her closed fist before releasing him. “You the one who finally got our girl here to take a break?”
He laughed, though maybe that was just relief at being allowed to stand upright again. “Don’t think I can take the credit for that one.”
“He can’t,” Harper agreed, leaning affectionately into his side. His arm settled around her waist, even though she was sure he was rolling his eyes.
“Right on, right on,” Constance said, a little distracted as she flashed a grin at one of the most beautiful women—baggy, ripped jeans and a cropped hoodie did nothing to hide gorgeous eyes or flawless skin—Harper had ever seen in person, and she’d sat across from Kirsten Stevens’ office every day for nearly three years. She didn’t stay to chat, which was probably good since Harper wasn’t sure she or Charlie would manage anything even remotely intelligent. Apparently, celebrities weren't their only social kryptonite. Harper only stopped watching her leave, long dreads swaying with her gait, when Constance asked, “You guys seen the bathroom yet? The shower in there is crazy.”
Harper had, in fact, seen the bathroom and couldn’t disagree.
But she wasn't going to tell her friend that. Instead, she just shook her head. “Do I even want to know how you can afford this place?” A loft this big, in the middle of Manhattan, would have run an arm and a leg. Or, at the very least, a kidney. Way more than one woman's Three Card Monte set up could bring in. Unless, of course, she'd graduated to a more lucrative game...
Constance shrugged, but she couldn’t quite kill the grin that threatened to break across her face. Her lack of a response was all the answer Harper needed.
That settled, she leaned in to satisfy her curiosity on another matter. “So, how did you get Daphne Kluger here?"
Oddly enough, Constance's eyes didn't go straight to the starlet commanding the attention of all within a ten-foot radius with some witty anecdote. Rather, they darted to the quiet corner with the best view of the room and the grungy-glam blonde and more unassuming brunette sitting there. They weren’t quite holding court, had only attracted the attention of a few other guests—mostly women, and none that Harper would have pegged as obvious acquaintances of a pickpocket turned vlogger—but there was no question that they saw and cataloged everything going on around them.
Before Harper could start thinking too hard about this, her friend laughed, loud and raucous enough to pull focus back to her.
"Oh, Daphne?” she chuckled, wiping away nonexistent tears. “Yeah, she’s in my book club.”
Automatically, Harper joined in on the joke with a laugh of her own. Even Charlie chuckled. When it seemed Constance was entirely serious, though, she glanced up at him. He was already looking back, his eyebrows raised. Daphne Kluger in a book club? Wasn’t she in the process of launching her own production company and directing some indie flick? Harper could barely manage to come to one loftwarming, and all she had on her schedule was make edits on an article she hadn’t yet been paid for. Where the hell did Daphne Kluger find the time for a book club?
“Hey, what do you think about joining?” Constance continued, blithely rolling right over Harper and Charlie’s surprise. Then, as if it weren’t a complete non sequitur, “You still have a hook up at Yankee Stadium, right?”
“Oh, uh,” Harper stuttered, still trying to wrap her mind around the image of Daphne Kluger sitting in someone’s living room, sipping wine and discussing—or not going by the way Harper’s mom’s book clubs always went—Reese Witherspoon's latest book of the month. “I mean, sort of? I guess."
Constance just nodded, her attention shifting back to the corner and the two women still seated there. “Cool,” she said, distracted. “Cool. I’ll let you know about the next meeting.”
She did not, however, stick around to hear Harper’s follow-up question, already back on her skateboard and weaving through the crowd to attend to her other guests. Charlie was the only one who heard her confused, “Don’t I need to know what book to read?”
“I guess not,” he replied, already shrugging off the weirdness. He was a New Yorker, after all. This wasn't the weirdest thing they'd experienced in the last half hour and was sure to be eclipsed by bigger weirdness by the time they went home.
Well, Harper could play it cool, too. Even if she really wanted to know what the hell kind of book club Daphne Kluger joined.
She nudged him in the ribs. “Want to get some more of those mini crab cakes?”
“I’ve got taste buds and a soul, don’t I?” Charlie grinned down at her and offered his hand. “Shall we?”
Smiling back at him, she fit her palm snugly into his. Harper couldn’t help but drop her chin to sneak a peek. Charlie’s hand was so big compared to hers, but she still liked the way they looked together. She looked back up again just in time to see Charlie raising his head, too, and could do nothing about the gross, ridiculous way she nearly melted at the sight.
Gentler than when Constance had done it, Harper tugged on her boyfriend’s hand to pull him down to her level. He came much more willingly this time around, no doubt encouraged by her waiting lips.
Charlie kissed her soundly, intently. With no indication that either A-list actresses or beautiful strangers were only a few feet away. They might as well have been at home with borrowed Netflix on a laptop and the best pizza in existence waiting in its box for how comfortable and right his lips felt brushing against hers.
When Harper pulled back, she was giddy and breathless but still hungry nonetheless. They’d have to pick that up later. Once she had food in her stomach.
Thank God Charlie didn’t seem to have any objections. On either front.
So, letting her fingers trail up the smooth skin of her boyfriend’s wrist and arm to settle in the crook of his elbow, Harper led him to the kitchen.
She was halfway through her third crab cake, having taken a short break to sample the balsamic pecorino and then the tiniest macaron she'd ever seen let alone eaten, when a thought occurred to her.
“Hey,” she said, elbowing Charlie and nearly making him drop his stuffed mushroom. His exasperation shifted to confusion and then pure shock when she finished with: “Weren’t you wearing a watch?"
Oh, look. She'd done it! She'd blown his mind.