The C Word by Mindy Klasky

The C Word

When a one-night stand, a fake relationship, and a demonic cat aren’t enough of a challenge—just add a pandemic.

Sportswriter Katie McIntyre thinks star pitcher Jason Price will be the perfect fling to help her forget her cheating ex. Their hook-up is supposed to end with breakfast.

But the coronavirus has other plans.

Katie unexpectedly becomes her grandmother’s full-time caretaker. When the disoriented elderly woman thinks Jason is Katie’s devoted beau, Katie pitches a pretend relationship to the star athlete. Jason knocks the fake-boyfriend ball out of the park.

Soon, their increasingly real alliance is tested by disastrous cooking, adult-themed donuts, and a hairless, irascible cat. And COVID quarantine inevitably magnifies one small secret (Katie’s) and one tiny lie (Jason’s.) The harder this pair falls, the greater the risk of those hidden truths.

If your heartstrings have been tugged by the feel-good rom-coms Beach Read, Well Met, or The Friend Zone, then pull up a chair, because The C Word is the perfect romantic comedy escape for you.

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PROLOGUE

In retrospect, the lipstick on Aaron’s collar should have been my first clue.

“What the actual fuck?” I demanded, holding up the stained shirt he’d left on the bathroom floor. We were already late to our pre-wedding party at Jungle Bird, over in Chelsea.

He shrugged. “Goddamn morning show. They had me in Makeup for an hour. I swear to God, that woman was thirty seconds away from going rogue with an eyelash curler.”

That made sense. A lot more sense than my fiancé cheating on me two weeks before our wedding.

Aaron complained about TV interviews all the time. All the guys did. They’d rather run the entire stadium than spend fifteen minutes under studio lights.

But New York loved its baseball heroes. And so did I. “Sorry,” I said, tossing the shirt into the hamper. “Didn’t mean to sound salty.”

Sound salty?” Aaron pulled me down beside him on our king-size bed. The tip of his tongue found the vulnerable curve behind my ear before he whispered, “You never have to worry about me. I love you.” He teased the hem of my silk teddy with his wiry fingers. “I can’t wait to marry you.” His hand slipped beneath the lace of my matching panties. “I’d never do anything to risk…losing…this.”

We were two hours late getting to the tiki bar. When we exited Aaron’s Lamborghini, paparazzi swarmed the sidewalk. We posed for a few minutes, letting them snap their fill, Aaron calm and confident while I tried to keep my eyes from squinching closed. Finally, he settled his palm against the small of my back and guided me toward the bar and our waiting friends. Half the people inside said something about the high color on my cheeks, and I laughed like any happy bride-to-be.

* * *

My second clue was the text exchange he didn’t bother to hide, a week before the wedding.

I’d promised to shut down my computer at eight. That would leave plenty of time to watch Fast and Furious Whatever—Aaron’s pick, of course. At least I’d get to ogle John Cena.

But my editor’s notes were a lot more extensive than I’d hoped. With three feature articles under my belt, I’d thought I had a better grasp of what Press Box wanted. Instead, I felt like I was back to cub reporting for The Springfield Examiner. 

Aaron totally didn’t get it. He said I was wasting my time with my little side gig. I didn’t need to work. I should dive into the social events and charity gigs that kept all the other WAGs—wives and girlfriends—busy.

But he agreed to watch the hockey game while I took a machete to my opening graf. I didn’t bother explaining to Aaron why every word had to be perfect. The trans woman I was writing about had faced enough hardship on the pro golf circuit. She didn’t need the largest sports journalism site on the Internet screwing her over.

It was well after ten before I curled up next to Aaron on the leather couch in front of our mammoth TV. A quick glance confirmed New York was up by one, with less than a minute to play. Pittsburgh pulled the goalie as I shifted to a more comfortable position.

Aaron’s ass buzzed.

He ignored it, eyes glued to the game. New York’s rookie defenseman was hacking at the puck, trying to cut his way through a tangle of skates. The kid went down to one knee and lunged with his stick. He managed to snag the puck, jackknifing his entire body to send the frozen rubber into the empty net for his first career goal. The arena erupted as the clock ran out.

Aaron’s ass buzzed again.

I shifted so he could reach his phone. A bunch of the guys were at the game but Aaron had begged off, saying they only wanted to pick up puck bunnies. Now, I said, “Spare me. Juan needs help choosing between Bachelorette 1, 2, and 3.”

Juan Gonzales was Aaron’s best friend. Best man, too. They’d both been traded to New York in 2015, and after four years of turning double plays on the field, they could practically read each others’ minds.

Aaron grunted as he glanced at the row of emojis from Lucky21: Banana, red lips, eggplant, pink lips, a spray of water drops, and a trio of bright pink tongues.

“Lucky21?” I asked, amused.

Aaron shrugged. “He shut down 21JuanGon. Too many exes with axes to grind.”

“Hard to believe,” I said. Almost like he heard me, Juan sent a line of fireworks, followed by a winking smiley face.

Aaron shook his head and slipped the phone into his pocket.

“Aren’t you going to answer?”

“Those were boasts, not questions. My man doesn’t need help getting laid. Speaking of which…” He waggled his eyebrows like a badly drawn cartoon character.

I laughed. “I’m sorry I took so long finishing up work.”

Aaron’s grin was wicked. “How sorry?”

“Um, what did you have in mind?”

He moved faster than I expected, flipping our positions. His hands planted beside my head and his forearms corded with muscle as he lowered himself for a kiss. I opened my lips before he did. He wedged his knee between mine, and his tongue slid home.

Juan texted again, but Aaron rocked against my hips. “Mmm,” I said. “That game really got you going.”

He growled, and I forgot about using my words. After, as I dozed off to a recap of New York’s win, I realized I’d found the perfect way to avoid watching movies with never-ending car chases.

* * *

The third clue was so blatant even I had to see the truth.

“I’m really doing this,” I said, taking one last look in the mirror. My wedding gown’s sweetheart neckline plunged beneath the strand of pearls I’d borrowed from my grandmother.

Brittany reached out to straighten the comb holding my veil, tucking in an errant bobby pin. “You’re gorgeous,” she said. 

I clutched my best friend’s hand. “It’s all going too fast! We haven’t had two seconds to talk all day.”

Brit’s lips twisted into a familiar smirk. “That’s what happens when you marry New York’s most eligible bachelor. At the Waldorf. On New Year’s Eve. Especially when he’s a world-famous sportsball star.”

A gulf of misgiving yawned beneath my ribs. “We should have eloped.”

“Like that was ever going to happen. Stop that! Look at me. No. You are not going to ruin your mascara. Don’t make me call the Sephora Dragon back in here!”

My laugh was shaky. I’d spent almost six hours in the hands of the iron-willed stylist, submitting to a cuticle-shearing manicure, a pore-concealing mask, and more makeup than I’d worn in the rest of my life, combined. 

Through it all, Aaron’s mother, sisters, aunts, and cousins had cooed around me. Six of them were bridesmaids, dressed in gowns that ran the gamut from mushroom to parchment to champagne. I’d spent the better part of the past week with my soon-to-be family, enjoying a spa day the Thursday after Christmas, a family dinner on Friday night, the Saturday matinée of Frozen, an all-day brunch on Sunday, a day of shopping up and down Fifth Avenue on Monday…

By Tuesday morning—wedding day—I’d been grateful when my grandmother begged off from helping me get dressed. One fewer female relation in my face felt like a blessing. “Just skip lunch so your gown fits properly,” Angel had said, pursing her lips over room-service coffee. “What?” she asked, in response to my exasperated huff. “I’m only telling the truth.”

Brittany had kept me from ripping Angel a new one; she knew my grandmother well. She’d used the same diplomacy to finally drive my bridesmaids from the room where I’d been held hostage all afternoon. “I’m the maid of honor,” she’d insisted, polite but firm. “I came all the way from DC, and I get five minutes alone with my best friend before she’s yours forever.”

Now, she dug through the detritus on the bed, finally coming up with her phone. “Come on,” she said. “One last selfie, before you become Mrs. Aaron Henderson.”

I made a face. Aaron and I had fought over my name for months. I’d finally given in last week, promising that I’d only keep Katie McIntyre on my Press Box articles. He seemed to think I’d be wrapping up my professional gig by the start of spring training. He was wrong, but it didn’t hurt to let him think he’d won.

I caught my scowl in the mirror as Brittany thumbed her phone to life. Before she could swipe to her camera, a dozen alerts flashed across the screen. “What the hell?” From her expression, alien spaceships must have materialized above the Empire State Building. 

“What is it?”

Brit held up her hand, palm out in the universal sign for Stop. I craned my neck to see, but she angled the phone away.

“What’s going on?” Annoyance was trumping my curiosity.

A head-shake this time, terse enough to pry a red curl loose from Brittany’s hairspray helmet. She winced as she tapped the screen.

“Ooooh,” came a moan that had nothing to do with alien spaceships. Well, maybe with alien probing… “Come on, baby… Give it to me, Santa! Give it to me hard!”

And then I heard a groan I would have recognized anywhere. I grabbed for the phone again. This time, Brittany let me have it.

For just a moment, nothing made sense. I was looking at my living room. At my leather couch. At my Christmas tree—eight feet tall, covered with colored blinking lights and dozens of ornaments, with an Instant Pot, a gravity blanket, and his-and-hers LL Bean boots still nestled beneath the branches because I’d been too busy with wedding crap to put away our gifts.

Our gifts. My gifts and Aaron’s gifts. Mine. His.

My brain couldn’t keep stuttering forever. I couldn’t keep staring at the multi-colored lights, wondering why I hadn’t put my foot down and said we needed white ones, plain ones, ones that didn’t blink on and off like some manic video game.

I had to look at the woman sprawled on the rug in front of the couch. I had to look at the man plowing into her from behind—the man wearing a jaunty Santa hat and not a single stitch more.

Aaron.

“Katie—” Brit said, trying to wrestle the phone away. My fingers froze into claws.

I didn’t answer. I just stared at the bobbing red hat and the tense white ass and the inevitable, porn-star-screaming conclusion.

The video started again, and Brittany finally succeeded in prying her phone free. She slammed off the volume and cut the picture before she tried: “Maybe it’s a fake—”

“It’s not a fake.” A red-hot fuse kindled in my gut.

“Maybe it happened a while ago. Before he met you.”

“It happened this week. After Christmas.” I froze the fire before it could do any damage. 

“Maybe…” But Brit couldn’t come up with another lie.

My next breath sliced through my lungs. I pulled away from the phone, from the video, from something old and something new, something borrowed and something fucking blue.

Aaron had screwed a woman in our home, a week before our wedding. And he’d been stupid enough, or horny enough, or didn’t-give-a-damn enough to record the whole thing. Or let the bitch record it. Whatever.

The frozen places inside me shifted and started to melt. But I needed that ice. I needed every sparkling crystal to hold my life together. I commanded my gel-polished fingernails to stop tearing crescent moons into my palms.

Lucky21. Juan Gonzalez, my ass. I had to hand it to Aaron. He was quick on his feet. And I’d bought the line about his teammate changing handles like a kid pouncing on a Mickey Mantle rookie card. Just like I’d swallowed his lie about the lipstick on his collar…

Lucky Fucking 21. The holiday elf begging for Santa’s load hadn’t seen twenty-one for a decade at least. And whatever surgeon had installed her triple-D snow globes ought to be sued for malpractice. Santa’s Little Helper looked too top-heavy to stand. 

“Come on,” I said, stepping out of my Manolo Blahnik crystal-toe pumps. I gathered up yards of white taffeta and jammed my feet into the ratty Keds I’d worn to the hotel that morning.

“What are you doing?” Brittany asked, but she was already stepping out of her own high heels.

I looked around for my own phone. There it was, on the coffee table, with its sleek wallet case—a credit card, my driver’s license, and an emergency twenty-dollar bill.

Well, this was an emergency. I grabbed it.

“Give me your phone.” Brittany handed it over as I threw open the door to the suite. Aaron’s oldest sister was bustling down the hall, her taupe bridesmaid’s dress hiked up to her knees. “There you are,” she said. “Mama was starting to w—”

I pushed past her without a word. I didn’t have time for an elevator. Instead, I led Brittany to the stairwell. Three flights down. Out the door. Down the corridor. 

I stepped into the ballroom, where every table was covered with fine china and polished silverware, ready for the guests to converge after the ceremony down the hall. Each centerpiece was a cluster of sweetheart roses gathered around an engagement photo of me with Aaron, along with one of our elegant letterpress invitations. Choking on a quick wash of bile, I grabbed one of the worthless invites.

The DJ stood at the front of the room, joking with three members of the band. I couldn’t remember his name. We’d interviewed half a dozen guys for the job, and Aaron had chosen this one. He was the most expensive, of course.

“Ms. McIntyre,” he said, straightening his tuxedo jacket the instant I stormed into view.

“Here,” I said, shoving Brittany’s phone toward him.

He took it by reflex. “What?”

“Play it.”

“Um, play what, Miss McIntyre?”

I took a deep breath. Held it for a count of three. Felt the soothing comfort of ice stiffening my spine. “That phone has a video on it. I want you to play it on that screen. As large and as loud as you can make it.”

The DJ shrugged. “I’ll need a password for the phone.”

“Brittany?”

“One, two, three, four,” Brit said.

I whirled on my best friend. “Are you serious?”

Brit shrugged. “It’s easy to type.”

Back to the DJ. “One, two, three, four,” I repeated.

He connected the phone to his computer with a cable that materialized from his tangle of sound equipment. “So, this is for your first dance with Mr. Henderson?”

“I want you to play it now.”

He was confused. “Now?”

I eyed him steadily. “And start it over, when you get to the end. As many times as the family lets you.” I dug into my wallet and came up with the twenty. “I wish I had more. Don’t let them stiff you on your bill.” I shoved the money into his palm before I dragged Brittany out the door.

A second ballroom at the far end of the floor was set up for the ceremony. My brother waited just outside, accompanied by the F5 tornado that was our wedding coordinator. Another Henderson family find.

“Katie!” Sean said, relief flooding his face.

“Sorry I’m late.” I stopped short in front of him.

“Let’s—”

“Nope,” I interrupted. “Change of plans.”

The wedding coordinator’s gasp of horror ripped something free inside my chest, and I took my first full breath in weeks.

“What— Why—” Sean gulped before he trotted out his best older-brother tone. “You’re not getting cold feet, are you?”

The wedding coordinator nodded like a bobblehead in a hurricane. Her face spun into a frayed mask, equal parts impatience and knowing sympathy. 

Sean always thought I was getting cold feet—when I changed my major, when I changed my college, when I moved to Springfield, and when I moved back home to DC. I hated his way of figuratively patting me on my head and telling me I’d grow up some day. He acted like he was thirty-six years older than I was, instead of six.

But this wasn’t the time or place to dredge up all of that.

“No cold feet.” I hitched up my skirt to show him my Keds. Wiggling my toes, I said, “In fact, my feet are comfortable for the first time all day.” I reached out and straightened his boutonniere. He really did look handsome in his tux. At least Timothy would get to enjoy his husband out of hospital scrubs for one night. “Sorry to do this, but the wedding’s off.”

The wedding coordinator roared like a train. “The wedding is what?

“Ooooh.” A moan reverberated from the far end of the hallway. The DJ had a much better sound system than I’d imagined. Its vibrations freed something locked deep inside me.

“Sorry,” I said, kissing Sean on the cheek. “Gotta run.” 

I grabbed Brittany’s hand and we raced back to the stairwell. We laughed like kids playing hooky as we fled down the steps, squealing as we burst into the lobby.

I lost my veil in front of a line of hotel guests waiting to check in. I didn’t wait for the uniformed doorman’s assistance with the heavy glass and metal doors. Instead, I barged onto the street and pulled Brit behind me.

Paparazzi were waiting. Paparazzi were always waiting. “Katie!” one of them called, and then the entire pack started baying. 

I paused for a moment, setting one hand on my hip and tilting my head to the perfect angle. I’d learned a lot in my time with Aaron.

But before the photographers could get their fill, I shoved the slightly crumpled invitation into the closest greedy hand. “Here’s your ticket to the main event. Tell anyone who asks that you’re a friend of the bride.”

I took advantage of the confusion to dart in front of a businessman who was about to slip into a taxi at the curb. Before he could protest, I wrangled armfuls of white taffeta onto the seat, yanked Brittany in after me, and slammed the door.

“Where to?” asked the laconic driver. He probably had runaway brides tumble into his cab every day.

“Penn Station,” I said. I closed my fingers around my phone, grateful I had a credit card to cover the train fare. Then I turned to Brit, who was laughing so hard she could barely breathe. “Sorry about that,” I said. “I guess I owe you a phone.”

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