Read the first three chapters of Weight Expectations!

Chapter One

** Rian **

There it is. The death machine.

Otherwise known as a treadmill by people who think walking but never getting anywhere is fun. But for someone like me, who hasn’t stepped on a piece of exercise equipment since… well, ever, it’s known as Killer.

The Grim Reaper.

The Angel of Death.

I know it’s already taunting me. Just like my doctor did when she said I needed to go on a diet or death was imminent.

No, really. She said that. I swear.

Alright fine. I’m lying. She didn’t actually use the words “imminent death”.  It was more like, “Rian, you’re thirty-seven years old, and you’re morbidly obese. I’m not asking you to become a skinny minnie. I’m asking you to be proactive with your health.”

Health, schmealth. It’s a family trait. We’re all big-boned, no matter how much rabbit food we eat. 

Fine, those are more lies. My little sister likes to run marathons—outdoors. With a destination. And a finish line.— And while she’s not skinny per se, she doesn’t fall into the overweight category anymore. Now she’s considered curvy.

Voluptuous.

Luscious.

Every time her fiancé says it during family dinner on Sundays, I want to puke. My mother, on the other hand, smiles and clutches her heart like it’s the most romantic thing she’s ever heard. My dad just ignores it all.

I would never tell my doctor this information, though. She doesn’t need more evidence to use against me. My cholesterol level has done enough.

Which is why I’m here staring at the daisy pusher-upper.

Taking a deep breath, I build up the courage to try. Gingerly, I step onto the machine, clinging to the handrails for dear life. As if they would collapse under the weight of me if I fell while it was in motion. And yes, that’s a very real fear. I have several of them right now. 

1. The treadmill collapses under my weight before I even turn it on.

2. I trip and fall over the side, face-planting in front of a gym full of people.

3. I can’t slow it down while gasping for air, thereby flying right off the end and landing on my amply padded ass, again, in front of a gym full of people.

All are very realistic fears considering these flimsy handrails couldn’t withstand the weight of one of my thighs. Why are they even here? Moral support?

Standing up straight, I want to give myself a pat on the back for not falling off so far. Granted, I haven’t really done anything yet, but still. Baby steps. Now to figure out what all the buttons mean…

My brain gets very close to overload as I try to figure out which “on” button actually means go. For some unknown reason, there are more than one. Maybe it’s this one…

Pressing a pink button, the monitor in front of me comes to life, but it’s not the television. I couldn’t get so lucky. Nope. Now I have touchscreen options, too. Seriously? This is why people don’t go to the gym. You need to be a freaking tech genius just to get the damn equipment to work.

“Do you need help?” A voice next to me comes out of nowhere and I startle, clutching my hand to my heart. He smiles while I take a second to assess whether or not that was my first official heart attack or if I’ve just had too much exercise for the day. 

I’m sure my doctor would say neither was the case, but she’s not here, so I’m going for the dramatic.

“Sorry,” I finally spit out. “It’s my first time here, and I guess I’m a little jumpy.”

And that’s when I look at him. Like, really look at him. And oh. My. Why have I never come to the gym before? If this fine specimen is any indication, I have been missing out. No one says I have to come here and participate. I saw plenty of people sitting at the smoothie bar when I walked in. You can’t convince me they’re all here for their health.

Well, I mean, it is a smoothie bar so they’re at least partially here for that reason.

But still! With his dirty blond hair cropped close to his head and the perfect amount of scruff, I could stare at him all day. And that’s before I notice his biceps. Holy smokes, has he got guns. His shirt clings to him in such a way that I know there are some rock-hard abs under there. And those thighs. Don’t get me started on those thighs that are peeking out from under his athletic shorts as he props his leg up on the machine or I may just combust right here on this death machine.

Then I notice the staff t-shirt. 

Ah. Now his inquiry makes more sense.

“No problem. I’m Abel.”

“Hi, Abel. I’m Rian.”

His eyes widen in surprise. “Ryan, huh? That’s an unusual name for a woman.”

I wave my hand around reciting the same explanation I have for the last three plus decades. “No, not Ryan with a ‘y’. Rian with an “i”. My dad’s name is Brian and my mom’s name is Riann, and they decided to combine the two to come up with Rian.”

And I’m rambling. Because why wouldn’t I when a hot guy is talking to me?  To his credit, Abel doesn’t run away screaming. His smile actually widens. Color me surprised.

“That’s a really cool story. When my wife and I were having our daughter, we couldn’t decide on her name. I’m Abel. She’s May. So our first is Mabel.”

Of course, he’s happily married with kids.

“That’s cute.”

“Thanks. We like it. So.” He claps his hands together, startling me again. “Enough procrastination. You’re here for a reason. Are you determined to use the treadmill, or are you interested in something a little more intense?”

I narrow my eyes at him, knowing this sales game well. I’m a master at it myself. “Do you get kick-backs from how many people you train, Abel?”

Now it’s his turn to look startled. “What?”

“How much to take the class you’re pimping?”

His eyebrows shoot up, and I know he’s surprised by my candor. “I—I don’t know. I don’t have the prices on me.”

“So, the only reason you came over here was to sell me something?”

His face pales and I start to feel bad. He doesn’t know me from Adam. He doesn’t know I don’t really have a bitch mode. I just like messing with people sometimes. Maybe I’ve taken it too far.

Patting his arm, I decide the charade isn’t worth it today. Not with this guy. If he’s this visibly concerned, chances are he’s genuinely nice. “I’m just kidding with you, Abel. I work in sales, too.”

“Wait.” He takes a step back and crosses his arms. “Was that a procrastination tactic?”

I cringe. “Did it work?” I ask sheepishly.

He nods, a look of appreciation on his face. “Almost. If you would have kept it up for just a few seconds longer, I probably would’ve cut my losses and walked away. Now you really need to sign up for a class. You owe me.”

My jaw drops. I didn’t give him enough credit. He’s as much of a smart ass as I am. I bet he contributes more to the commission pool than anyone else in this place, just by flashing that fake embarrassed look. 

“I can’t believe you just turned that around on me,” I say to myself, shaking my head in disbelief.

“Work here long enough, and you learn how to keep up with the shady ones.” He leans over and presses a yellow button on my machine. Sure enough, it comes to life.

“How did you do that?” I say louder than I intend. Looking around, it doesn’t appear that anyone noticed, but I still make a concerted effort to lower my volume. No need to draw unnecessary attention to myself in case this venture goes terribly wrong. “Seriously. Teach me all the things.”

Abel laughs a deep rumble from deep in his chest. Damn. Add that sound to the list of reasons his wife is a lucky woman. 

And yes, I’m objectifying here, which I know is wrong. But when you are thirty-seven, have never been married, have no prospects, and haven’t had any for years, it’s tough to hold the boundary on appropriate thoughts. 

Not that I’m worried about being an old maid or anything.

I think.

Maybe.

I don’t know. It seems to change depending on my mood. Some days I’m happy as a clam being single and ready to mingle. Others, I could emotionally eat my way through a Dairy Queen. 

Huh. Maybe I fall on the anxious side of love more than I realized. That’s what landed me here, right?

Unexpectedly, the ground beneath me begins to move. 

Abel must notice the fear on my face because he immediately uses that smooth, deep voice to calm me. “Relax. We’re starting slow. Just look straight ahead and walk.”

Okay. I can do that. Just walk. I’ll be fine as long as we don’t go any faster.

“Why are we going faster?” I screech, as Abel presses more buttons. “And why is it going up?”

Abel laughs again, only this time it’s not a deep timbre. This time it’s an annoying ruckus, ruining my carefully laid plans to start slow.

“Relax, Rian. I bumped it up to Level One. In truth, that’s closer to the same level as walking directly on the ground.”

Oh

“Oh.” Well, now I feel stupid and dramatic.

“We’re going to put you on an interval. We’ll go in five-minute cycles. Three minutes at your slowest pace, one minute at your medium pace, and one minute at your fast pace. Repeat the cycle for thirty minutes.” 

I look at Abel like he’s lost his damn mind.

Sucking in breath, I propose a compromise. “I was thinking of starting more with a stroll.”

“A stroll?” Clearly amused, Abel doesn’t bother stopping the machine until we have a solid plan. Nope. He keeps pressing buttons that do God-knows-what and smiles. He. Smiles. A smile I no longer consider attractive, but smarmy and conniving. His poor, poor wife.

“Fine. I’ll settle for a meander.” Pointing my finger at him for dramatic effect, I add, “But that’s my final offer.”

He shakes his head and finally stops pressing buttons. Finally. And yet… I’m still moving. This isn’t good.

“Nope. Thirty minutes of intervals and then I’ll come back here to work on some stretches with you.”

My eyes widen, both in disbelief and possible terror at what “stretching” might entail. I ate a bean burrito for lunch. Does he not understand the kind of danger “stretching” might put everyone in? 

“I don’t think I like this plan. And I’m not paying for this training session, Abel, since it’s unauthorized.” I try to cross my arms like an obstinate child but end up grabbing the handrails when I lose my balance. Clearly, I can’t walk and be defiant at the same time. “Come to think of it, when you walk away, I’ll just leave.”

“No, you won’t. You don’t know how to turn off the machine.”

“Dammit,” I grumble and turn my head away dramatically.  He’s right. I am totally and completely at his mercy until he comes back to get me, or the power goes out. I’m all for a man taking control and getting me sweaty, but this is not how I imagined it would go. “Fine. I give up. I will do these intervals for thirty minutes. But if the video of me falling and my shirt being ripped off goes viral, I’m telling the ladies of The View and all their watchers that you are my trainer. I will ruin you!”

He chuckles again and it makes me want to take his wife to a support group for wives of hot, chuckling, unable to be manipulated husbands. The poor woman.

“Are you always this dramatic?”

“Always,” I say without hesitation.

“Good. I like it. See you in thirty.”

“It’s twenty-eight minutes now!” I call after him as he walks away. “Don’t you be a second late!”

He waves at me over his shoulder, never looking back. 

* * *

I will never admit it to Abel, but the stretches weren’t as bad as I thought they would be. There was one time I had to clench a little, but for the most part, my muscles feel really relaxed now.

Plus, I enjoyed the conversation with Abel. He gets my humor and throws it right back at me. He even convinced me to try out his strength training class.

Yeah, he’s got jokes of his own all right, manipulating me like that.

Besides figuring out how to get the electronics to work, the biggest obstacle was showering. Whoever designed these box shower stalls in this place didn’t take into account that people come to the gym to get skinny—they don’t start out that way. So, there I was, my “morbidly obese” self, trying to figure out how to shave my legs without my rear sticking out of the curtain into the hall while getting sprayed in the face with the water. 

Pretty sure I had to break down and position myself in one of Abel’s stretches for it to work. And I’m still not sure I didn’t moon a passerby. 

But no matter. Once I finally contorted myself around and got my clothes on, I was pretty proud for acting like a real gym rat. Of course, this was after dropping my pants inside a puddle in the stall. Thank goodness they provide blow dryers. Otherwise it would have looked like I had an accident before I even left the building.

All that extra effort to clean up made me thirsty, so I’ve decided to reward myself with a drink.

Sidling up to the smoothie bar, I decide to try my hand at an organic, GMO-free treat. Because nothing says heart health like drinking plants. Or so I’ve heard. Besides, I don’t see vodka on the menu. Bummer.

Wiping her hands on a towel, the clearly frazzled and overworked bartender, or should I call her a smoothie-tender approaches. 

“What can I get you?”

I purse my lips and give her a deer-in-the-headlights look. “Uhhhh, I have no idea.”

She leans against the counter. Suddenly, she doesn’t look overwhelmed. She looks… interested. “Ah. Newbie, huh?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“Considering I know just about everyone who walks through those doors,” she gestures to the front of the room, “and I’ve never seen you before, it’s an educated guess.” She pops back up off the counter like she didn’t just get comfortable. “I’m Tabitha, by the way. And here is a list of some of our best sellers. Most of these are creations I came up with on my own.”

Taking the list from her hands, I peruse the different items. I’m shocked to admit, some of them look pretty good. My mouth starts watering at the thought of having a Dreamcicle smoothie. Then, I see one that catches my eye.

“Ooooooh. What is this chocolate bar shake?” I’m sure my face has lit up from the prospect of gooey caramel and rich milk chocolate in my mouth. I might like this gym after all.

“That is one of our best sellers. Made with chocolate protein, almond butter, a little almond milk, banana—”

Very quickly, Tabitha recognizes the glaze of disappointment that is replacing the stars in my eyes, especially when she gets to something called vanilla greens, which makes no sense whatsoever. “I lost you, didn’t I?”

I nod blankly.

“Well, then, you’ll just have to trust me. It’s good.”

“Can you add a Snickers bar to it?”

She laughs, and I can’t help but wonder if she’s a former smoker. Something about the rumble in her chest reminds me of my late grandma who smoked two packs a day for twenty years. 

I remember when Nanny quit. We avoided her house for weeks until she finally didn’t want to throw her flip-flops at everyone for eyeing her wrong. Nanny never did pick up a cigarette again. But she never lost that smoker’s voice either. Just like Tabitha.

I shrug at her and then give her the go-ahead because, what the hell? I’ve already tried walking on the death trap and played contortionist in the shower. Why not add drinking pureed rabbit food to the list?

Tabitha raps her knuckles on the counter once and turns away from me to a different counter cluttered with blenders, containers of fruit, and jars of strange concoctions that are no doubt intended to increase my digestive health. The way she mixed things at such a rapid pace, like it comes second nature and she doesn’t really need to think about it, is impressive. Almost like watching Tom Cruise flip bottles around in Cocktail. Except without the flying alcohol. Or the happy side effects to making me forget my near-death experience earlier.

Of course, I catch Abel’s eye at the same moment I’m remembering how glorious I looked covered in sweat. He smiles at me and gives me a thumbs-up. I really, really need to send his wife my condolences for marrying that guy.

He’s going to be so fun to verbally spar with when I’m here. Especially if I don’t have to physically spar with him. I shudder at the thought of dancing around with boxing gloves on.

Mere seconds later, Tabitha hands me a clear plastic cup filled with brown liquid and a straw.

I flick my gaze up to my new friend, and she raises her eyebrows. “Go ahead. Let’s see what you think.”

Slowly, I reach for the straw and pull the paper off. Inserting it in my drink, never taking my eyes off hers, I bring it to my lips and take a quick pull. I make note of the flavors as they cross my tongue:

Chocolate

There’s that almond butter she mentioned. Not bad.

Ew. EW! That must be the greens she mentioned.

Wait… there’s more chocolate.

Oh, some banana! That’s a nice surprise.

“Well?” she finally asks, like my opinion is that important to her. 

I nod a few times in appreciation as I take another drink. “Not bad. Surprisingly, it’s pretty good.”

She raises her fists in victory, which seems a little over the top for a successful smoothie, but who am I to judge? I was just mentally patting myself on the back for showering without flashing the entire locker room. 

“I have yet to have someone tell me they hate it. And I have a wager going with the boss man. If fifty out of fifty customers tell me they like it, I win a hundred bucks.”

“How does he know you’re telling the truth?” I ask around my straw. I might get another one of these things if I finish this one too quickly.

She shrugs. “He doesn’t. We use the honor system.”

Tabitha turns to help another customer and her answer rolls around in my head. But how does the boss know she’s honorable? What if she’s lying through her teeth? Will she still take the money? And how long does it take to convince fifty customers to try a chocolate smoothie?

Still contemplating the logistics of the bet, I glance up and my whole body freezes when I come face-to-face with the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen in my life. 

“Hey, Carlos,” Tabitha says nonchalantly to the god in front of me.

Carlos. I think to myself. Carrrrrrrlos. Hmm. Even in my head, I can’t roll my r’s. 

Seriously, though. That is one good looking man. I’m almost positive a ray of light from heaven is shining on Carlos’s head and the heavenly hosts are singing. 

Probably no older than forty, his chiseled jaw could have been carved out of marble. The taut muscles of his upper body move and flex as he orders his drink. Crystal blue eyes twinkle when the most gorgeous smile crosses his face. And then… and then he runs his long fingers through thick dark hair.

His eyes flick over to mine and I lick my lips in anticipation of what’s to come. The feeling is short lived because it turns out, he wasn’t looking at me but through me, obviously not even registering that he was just staring my direction as he turns away.

Yeah, those heavenly hosts come to a screeching stop in my head. I roll my eyes at myself for even thinking a guy like him would ever look at a girl like me. I’ve got almost four decades under my belt, so I know how this works. Pretty guys stick with pretty girls. It’s always been that way and it always will be that way.

And as if I couldn’t be even more ready to ditch this joint and cut my losses, suddenly Abel sidles up next to me, lacing his fingers together and resting them on the counter.

“I see you’re having a healthy dinner. Your doctor would be proud.”

Licking my lips of the chocolate mustache I’m sure I’m sporting, I retort, “If I was four inches taller, my doctor would leave me in my carb-induced peace.”

“Doubtful. Skinny-fat is a real thing. You’d be surprised.”

I raise a single eyebrow at him, mostly because I have no idea what he’s talking about, but I’ll be damned if he’s going to win this round. I’m already dehydrated from all the sweating he made me do. It’s making me grouchy.

Taking in my reaction, he chuckles softly. “Okay, okay. I’ll lay off. But I really do think you’d like the strength training class I teach tomorrow night. I have a group of really fun ladies in there you’d get along with. We work hard, but we have a good time doing it. And just so you know, this isn’t just about getting a sale. The first class is complimentary, simply so you can check it out and meet some people.”

Narrowing my eyes, I make a show of taking the last long slurp of my smoothie before answering him. “And if I don’t like it, you won’t pressure me to try again?”

He hangs his head in defeat, or maybe it’s to regroup. I need to keep my guard up with this guy. If I’m not careful, he’ll have me back down to a size eight, and who wants to exercise that hard? 

“I can’t say I won’t pressure you at all. But if you don’t like it, we’ll stick to the treadmill for a while. Deal?”

He puts out his hand to shake mine. I hesitate for just a moment but realize I don’t have much to lose. Except maybe my pride. And my ability to walk up and down stairs after leg day. But this chocolate bar smoothie might be worth it.

Finally, I reciprocate and give him a firm handshake, so he knows I’m no pansy. “Deal.”

“Great.” Patting out a short rhythm on the counter, he stands to leave. “Six o’clock sharp. Don’t be late and bring a water bottle.”

“You really should provide one for me since you suckered me into it,” I call after him.

He doesn’t respond, mission clearly accomplished, but Tabitha does. “Are you doing Abel’s strength training class tomorrow night?” My guard immediately goes up.

“Yeeees?” I squeak out. “Why?”

Tabitha throws her head back and laughs. “Oh, you poor, poor dear. I’ll have some extra ice packs on hand. I’ve only done it once, and I thought I’d lost my ability to use my arms permanently.”

I cringe. “Oh, god. That sounds horrible. What have I done?”

“They’re vultures around here,” she continues which does not make me feel better at all. “And once you get sucked in, you’re stuck for life.”

I gasp and throw my hands over my mouth. “Ohmygod. I’ve stumbled into the Hotel California.”

“Worse. Welcome to Weight Expectations, Where Great Things Happen.” Tabitha gestures toward the big sign hanging behind her. Then she leans forward on the counter and whispers conspiratorially. “Also known as workout hell.”

Chapter Two

** Carlos **

“Ten,” I announce to myself through clenched teeth and continue blowing the air out through my lips. Deep breath in as I lower the thirty-five-pound weight, then begin the process of bending my arm and bringing it back up again. “Eleven.” More blowing air out. Just four more to go before I can rest for sixty seconds.

The sweat is more than just beading on my brow at this point. Everyone has an area of their body that is weaker than the others. Mine just happens to be my arms. That also happens to be why I do arm day at least twice a week. It’s been hard work building up these guns over the last few years. 

Just as I get to fifteen, a brand-new gym rat walks by. The smoldering look she gives me in the mirror proves that all the sacrifice I’ve made to turn my body into a lean machine has been worth it.

I didn’t always look this way. I was your average guy with an average body when I met Quinn Sullivan and started working for him. Quickly, I realized “average” was not the norm at Cipher Systems. If I wanted to keep up professionally and personally, I needed to be better than normal. I was already a head above the rest with my intellect. I just needed the body to match.

Not gonna lie… turning heads on the regular now isn’t a hardship. 

Carefully placing my weight on the floor and picking up my water bottle, I keep my eyes on the woman as she struts over to the adjacent room and grabs the suspension bands that are hanging from the ceiling. I haven’t seen her before and I’m here almost every day. But it’s clear she’s no stranger to the gym. She’s wearing spandex shorts that cup her tight rear and a fancy sports bra over her ample breasts, her defined abs on display for everyone to see. No doubt she’s trying to intimidate the other hardcore gym rats. I’ve seen those power plays happen more than once over the years. Usually it’s over the attention of the men in the room.

Or in particular—me.

I make no apologies for “befriending” some of the women here. It’s only natural for attractions to occur when you’re wearing next to nothing and showing off your flexibility. More than once I’ve thanked the gods of Yoga for bringing that exercise back into fashion. 

Cocking my head, I watch as the woman places her feet in the bands and stretches herself out on the floor in a plank position, body hovering, her long blond ponytail hanging down around her cheek. Slowly, she moves her legs this way and that, stretching and contorting in ways that make sure every muscle in her body is flexed simultaneously. She glances up once, just once, to make sure I’m watching.

This is the dance I do often at my home away from home. The quick glances. The flirty smirks. The way body language becomes an invitation for something more. The moves are always the same. Only the players change. 

This is the way I like it. There are no expectations, no deep emotions. Just surface level, short-term hookups that include mutual appreciation for the physical part of life and all that it entails. And I’m good at it. 

Some might say that’s an exaggeration or that I’m overcompensating for my insecurities. But I’m much more of a realist than that. I know I have flaws. Like having to do twice as many arm days. Sex, however, is something I just have a natural ability at. Giving women pleasure, and I always give them pleasure, is a gift I’m happy to give.

Glancing down at my smart watch, I have thirteen more seconds to rest my arms and stretch my imagination. I watch as the woman leans forward so her shoulders are holding the brunt of her weight. Slowly, teasing me, she begins to spread her legs, wider and wider giving me a glimpse of—

“Hey, man!”

I try not to startle, or snarl, at my gym buddy, despite his impeccable timing.

Shooting him a half-hearted glare, I lean down to pick up my weights. These biceps won’t grow themselves. See? Humble. 

“You love sneaking up on me, don’t you?”

Slow breath out, lift, deep breath in.

“I didn’t sneak up on you. Never do,” Nick argues as he peruses the weight rack, looking for the right set. There are multiple pairs in the weight he needs, but for whatever reason, he prefers the one set that has a random orange smudge on it. “You just lose awareness of your surroundings whenever a pair of short shorts and nice rack walk by.” He forcefully grabs the weights, making the entire weight rack shake. I’m sure it’s his way of trying to be ironic. It doesn’t work, but I give him credit for trying.

“Do you blame me?” I grunt, continuing my motion. Nick may be fun to hang out with, but he’s not the best workout buddy I’ve ever had. 

One would think with his being an internist, he’d be more organized and meticulous. He’s not. At least not in this environment. Sure, he lifts hard and he’s a good spotter, but he also never shows up on time and doesn’t stay focused on his training. That’s probably why he always finds me. I have a very specific workout regimen to adhere to:

Protein shake and various vitamins and probiotics thirty minutes before my workout.

One hour of weight training.

Thirty minutes of cardio.

Thirty minutes of intense stretching.

Shower, shit, and shave.

Protein and vegetables thirty minutes post workout.

Six days a week, every week, regardless of vacation, holidays, or weather.

If Nick wants to join me for it, that’s fine with me. He keeps me company and has proven to be a decent wingman on the few times we’ve gone out. I’ve never been able to figure out why he doesn’t take the lead when it comes to the ladies, but it doesn’t hurt my feelings.

My supposed workout partner watches the hottie in the mirror for a few seconds before responding with a low-tone whistle. “Nope. No judgement from me. Just an observation.” His head cocks to the side and I find myself focusing my gaze back on her to see what has him so interested. She’s slowly maneuvering herself into a handstand position, legs still spread. “No judgement from me at all,” he says quietly, eyes never moving off the scene behind us.

Finishing my set, I drop the weights and grab my towel to mop my face. “Are you planning to work out today or just stare at the eye candy?”

“Why can’t I do both?” he grunts, finally getting up to speed, although his form leaves something to be desired. 

“Exactly my point.” One more set down. One more to go. “Why are you so late today, anyway?”

“Fifteen,” he breathes and drops the weights. No way in hell was that fifteen reps on each side, but with definition like his, it doesn’t really matter. Turns out yanking on people’s appendages all day long gives its own kind of workout. “I had a last-minute patient. Emergency tibia fracture. From the way his leg was bruised I needed to make sure his blood disorder wasn’t going to cause extra problems.” 

Just hearing about it gives me the willies. I don’t necessarily have a weak stomach, just some very vivid memories of a friend snapping his arm in half in high school. No matter how many times I’ve tried to scrub the images from my brain, they’re more than happy to torture me at times like these. “Please tell me it was a lesser injury than you thought.”

“Oh, yeah.” He waves me off like bone sticking through skin is no big deal. I guess in his world it’s an everyday occurrence.. Yet another reason why I prefer managing the administrative side of the office at my job. Shredding my muscles with weights is about as much injury as I like. “Just a regular break. No surgery necessary and everything clotted like it was supposed to. How many more sets you got?”

“Just one. But then I’m heading into the cycle class that starts in five. You coming with me?”

He looks at me like I’ve lost my mind. “Hell no. I’m not trying to fit my ass on that tiny little bike.”

Rolling my eyes, I grab my weights for the last time today. “You’re missing out. The heavier the resistance, the better it is for your quads.”

“Don’t give me that bullshit. You only go because that new instructor wears tops that fall forward so you can see straight down into her bra.”

A short laugh pops out of my mouth. He’s not wrong. “It’s not a bad way to spend an hour, that’s for sure,” I say with a groan, trying to talk, count, and breathe correctly at the same time. “But really, the cardio is killer.”

“Eh. I’ll pass. I think I’m going to concentrate on my stretching today.”

Furrowing my brow, I watch in the mirror as he re-racks his weights. “Since when do you work on your flexibility?”

“Since you refuse to give yourself any time off from working out, which means I have a shot to impress the new hottie before you do.” He whacks me with his towel and calls out, “Later,” as he struts away.

Son of a bitch. I should have known he was going to swoop in when he had the chance. I watch as he approaches the woman who smiles when he greets her. Nick is nowhere near hard on the eyes, a fact she seems to appreciate. It takes just a few seconds before he’s shaking her hand and their body language changes. 

A lesser man would be annoyed after this turn of events, but I’m not a lesser man. Nick may be a doctor, but nothing says success like a focused mind and trim body. There will be other women. And they know where to find me.

Chapter Three

** Rian **

I glare at my single-serving Tupperware container, silently saying every prayer, chant, and children’s poem I can think of that might possibly turn this salad into a large cheese pizza with mushrooms, black olives, and hamburger meat. Surely there was some magic to Jack Sprat and his wife, right?

Slowly pulling back the top, I peek inside. “Drat.” I chuckle to myself because I’m a poet and didn’t know it. Still, there’s no magic inside this container. It’s just romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and some sort of oil and vinegar dressing I found on Pinterest that sounded decent. But my rhyming skills are on point today which has to count for something.

It’s day two of following my doctor’s instructions and the food already sucks.

To make matters worse, the overwhelming scent of Axe body spray floods my sinuses before I even hear the man of my nightmares approach. 

Don’t get me wrong—I like the smell of Axe when used in small doses. But Nolan Schmidt doesn’t use it in small doses. I’m almost positive he buys it by the keg and bathes in it. Which might not be so bad if he didn’t irritate me daily with his passive-aggressive comments. I’ve never figured out if he knows he’s doing it or if he genuinely thinks he’s being helpful. 

Leaning over me to grab a disposable cup off the shelf, he makes sure to see what I’m looking at. “Rabbit food for lunch today, Rian?”

I close my eyes and take a quick deep breath, trying not to choke, merely so I don’t turn around and stab him with my spork. It’s the only one I have with me and I’d hate to throw it away due to blood contamination. After a moment, I feel centered enough to paste a fake smile on my face and say, “Yep. It’s never too late to get healthy. Not even at my age. Am I right?” Not the funniest self-depreciating joke I’ve ever come up with, but maybe it’ll throw him off my scent. If he even smells anything besides himself. Come to think of it…

I discreetly bring the bowl to my nose and take a quick whiff. Nothing. Even the smell of my salad dressing is masked by his massive quantities of cologne. I just hope it still tastes like a vinaigrette and not “Musk of Man” by the time I eat it. You never know how much those scent molecules are going to infiltrate my taste buds. Kind of like when someone farts at the dinner table and you just know you’re eating someone’s poop particles. Or something very scientific theory like that.

This is why I work in sales at a cable company and not in a lab somewhere. Pretty sure coming up with my own theories on how science works would be frowned upon.

“I applaud your desire to get healthy.” And so it begins. I know by the condescending tone in his voice, I’m about to be in for a real treat also known as a patronizing rant. Actually, that’s sarcasm. I’m not looking forward to whatever he’s about to say at all. “But there’s more to losing weight than eating salad.”

“I said I’m getting healthy. Who says I’m trying to lose weight?”

We all know I am. How else can I justify being morbidly obese and eating vegetables? Because I like the taste? Pffft. Even I won’t pretend to enjoy the healthiness that’s about to invade my body. But if I can put Nolan on the spot and make him as uncomfortable as he’s trying to make me, it’s at least worth presenting the question.

Unfortunately, by the way he looks me up and down, it didn’t work.

“Rian, your health is at risk.” I narrow my eyes at him, now just plainly pissed off at his wild assumptions and nerve. Sure, his presumptions are correct, but that doesn’t mean he has a right to call me out on it. “But you’ve got to understand that just eating a salad now and again isn’t going to help. It takes years of correctly balanced meals and exercise to get your body on track after so many years of damage.”

His words don’t just stun me, his gall does as well. Yes, I’m overweight. I see it every day when I look in the mirror. It’s a fact of life. But it’s no different than me having brown hair or him having a receding hairline, but you don’t see me handing him a pamphlet for that fancy bottle that sprays hair on your head, although I need to make a mental note to do just that. My body is what it is and having extra pounds doesn’t mean I’m any less important than Jill in accounting, who has probably never had to diet in her life, and it certainly doesn’t give him or anyone else the right to talk about it.

Just as I open my mouth to speak, a woman’s voice pipes up from across the room.

“Hey, Nolan, are you going to the Connecting with your Customers conference next week?”

Francesca. My co-worker. She sits in the cubicle behind mine and is probably the chattiest person I know. With her petite features and even more petite frame, she complains about getting carded on a regular basis. I’m sure when she’s my age she’ll feel differently on that topic. Don’t get me wrong, everyone wants to be taken seriously. But I’m pushing forty and I have yet for that to happen. I wouldn’t mind a few teeny-bopper jokes if the trade-off was porcelain skin like hers.

Turning his attention away from me, Nolan smiles wide at Francesca. Now that he has an audience, he’s turning on the charm. I might just go blind from this amount of wattage.

“I am, and I’m looking forward to it. Are you going?”

Francesca makes a face like she smells something bad, although I doubt it’s from the cologne. “Heck, no. Why would anyone subject themselves to that?”

Nolan sputters like he’s shocked she would say such a thing. Frankly, I’m a little confused myself. Just last week she was disappointed that it had filled up before she could sign up. “It’s always good to improve your skills. You can never be too good at the job, Fran.”

“Francesca,” she corrects and licks the ketchup from her giant-sized cheeseburger off her thumb. What I wouldn’t give to be sharing that burger with her… “I just don’t see what the point is. It takes years of conferences and webinars to combat bad habits we all settle into.  Especially as technology and policies change. If change can’t come immediately, why bother even trying?”

Nolan continues looking confused, but I’m trying not to laugh. I picked up on that sugary-sweet voice the second she started talking and he has no idea she just threw his words back in his face. I suppose that’s one of the benefits of being self-absorbed. You never know when the joke is really on you.

“I heartily disagree with you, Fran.”

“Francesca.”

“Self-improvement is vital to maintaining a healthy workplace. Every little bit helps.”

Francesca says nothing, but her eyebrows raise just slightly like she is waiting, probably for his lightbulb moment to come. I, myself, am waiting with bated breath in anticipation, abnormally excited by this exchange. But I also work in a cubicle. This is literally the most drama I’ll ever see outside of a Real Housewives marathon.

When it becomes clear the analogy is completely lost in translation, Francesca gives a quick nod and, “I suppose you’re right,” before going back to her juicy burger that smells so good. 

Nolan goes back to babbling about clean eating while I leave him to fill his coffee cup. Fortunately, the powers that be refuse to spring for the sixteen ounce size so it doesn’t take him long to finish up and leave.

Lowering myself in the chair across from Francesca’s, I give her an incredulous look.

Glancing back and forth for a few seconds, she finally caves. “What?”

“What was that?”

“What was what?”

Propping my elbows on the table, I quirk a single eyebrow her direction. She knows I’m not going to let this go. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s holding the line until I get the answer I want. It’s how I ended up in the Top Twenty-Five Sales Employees last year. Not because I’m great at selling cable packages to the folks of the Greater Chicago area. I’m just stubborn.

Finally, she rolls her eyes and caves. “Fine. I hate that guy.”

My jaw drops. “You don’t hate anyone.”

“Truth be told, I hate a lot of people. I just keep it to myself. But that guy,” she points out the door, “that guy is the worst of the worst, and I was tired of hearing him talk.”

I can’t help when a laugh pops right out of my mouth. “This is a side of you I’ve never seen before.”

She shrugs and takes a big bite, talking around it as she chews. “I don’t believe in recruiting others to hate certain people along with you. I can silently stew in my own hatred. Well, unless I’m drinking. If we ever go to a bar, remember not to ask me about our co-workers.”

Finally feeling as if the air has cleared enough for my food to be in the safe zone once again, I peel the lid off my salad and spear some lettuce with my fork. “You’re making me a little nervous, Francesca. How do I know you don’t hate me?”

“Because you’re not an asshole.”

“Well, that’s comforting to know.”

She drops her burger on her plate, grabbing a tiny packet of ketchup and peeling it open. Sitting next to her was a mistake. I’ve never wanted to burn a plate of vegetables before, but right now, they look so terrible next to her lunch, all I can think about it setting them on fire and putting us all out of our misery.

“I just hate when people are holier than thou, ya know? It makes me feel all ragey inside.”

I try hard not to giggle at the image of this tiny woman raging. Would her punches hurt or feel like a kitten playing with a ball of yarn? My money is on the kitten.

“People assuming they can remark on other people’s bodies is a huge pet peeve of mine, in case you didn’t notice,” she continues. “And it’s about to get worse so I’m bracing myself, I guess.”

My stomach takes this moment to let out a loud, embarrassing growl. I guess there will be no food burning today. Instead, I sigh and take my first bite of my first salad on my first official day of eating healthy. Yesterday didn’t count. I didn’t want to go to the gym and then overdo it on vegetables. That just sounded like a disaster waiting to happen. Someone should remind that trainer Abel that baby steps are a good thing before he gets me on that treadmill again.

“What do you mean it’s going to get worse?”

Francesca lets out a giant sigh before dipping a fry in ketchup and popping it in her mouth. “Remember the company physicals we’re required to take to keep our insurance premiums down?”

I nod in response as I chew, making a mental note to mix this salad dressing again. It makes the leaves palatable, even with the small Axe aftertaste to it. “How could I forget? I’m eating the results of mine right now.”

“My blood work came back. My cholesterol is so high, HR is threatening to increase my rates because I’m a health risk. Can you believe that?”

I shake my head no, but really, I can believe it. I was threatened with the same thing until all my blood work came back normal. I thought they were going to lay me off, but apparently, they found a new victim in my bite sized co-worker. “Can they even do that? Legally?”

Francesca gives me an incredulous look. “It’s the Sandekes. You think they care?”

“They will if someone blows the whistle.”

“And who would do that? I don’t know anyone that wants to sleep with the fishes.”

She’s got a point. The Sandeke family aren’t known for taking criticism well. It’s best to stay out of their way sometimes and just do as you’re told.

“I understand that heart disease, diabetes, and strokes run in my family,” she continues as if the legalities are of no consequence. Although now I’m watching her more closely, half afraid she’s going to drop dead in front of me because of her jacked-up genetics. “But I’m just at risk at this point. Not even high risk. But do they care? No. So unless I want my monthly rates to go up, I don’t have a choice but to get my cholesterol down.”

“That sucks.”

“I know. I hate rabbit food.”

“Seems like they’d be more afraid of you losing too much weight.”

She pauses briefly, mouth open and French fry halfway to its final destination. I can’t tell for sure, but I think she just gave me the evil eye. Slowly taking her bite, she chews briefly before clearing her throat. “That’s what I’ll hear from everyone for the next six to eight weeks before my next test comes in. Oh, Francesca, you’re so skinny. You need to eat something. Oh, Francesca, why are you trying to lose weight? Oh, Francesca, men don’t like a woman who is just skin and bones.” She rolls her eyes dramatically and I have the suspicion this isn’t the first time her doctor has put her on some sort of regimen. “Yes, thank you, Mother. I know all these things.” Mother? Ouch. “But men also don’t like women who are dead. Well, I mean there was that one guy on the news, but I wouldn’t even bone him if I was six feet under.”

Her comment makes me laugh. She’s not wrong. That guy’s lazy eye combined with his disheveled appearance made him look super crazy. That and the fact that he was having sex with dead people.

“You’re not the only one.” I stab a piece of lettuce with my fork and then sneer at it. Like threatening it will make it turn into a French fry. “Ever since my sister got engaged, all I hear about is how if I would just lose a hundred pounds, I could find a date. Who says I even want to date? If putting in that much effort to attract someone is what it takes, I’m not sure I have it in me to try to keep them.”

“Preach, sister. I’d rather be single.”

Not that I don’t want to date. I do. But it feels like it’s necessary to fit into some sort of mold for a man to even look at me. And why not? It’s like everyone is trained to believe skinny is best. I can’t tell you how many commercials are on for weight loss supplements and programs during primetime TV watching. I tried counting one night during my favorite emergency room/fire department/detective shows. I lost count when I had to take a potty break. And none of those shows have a fat actress in a leading role. Sure, she makes a great sidekick, but there is never any love interest for her.

Even social media has filters to thin out your face before posting a selfie. I have yet to find one that makes your face fuller, unless it’s distorting you in other ways as well.

Healthy or not, fat has a negative connotation to it. The more of it you have on your body, the more negative that association becomes, and the less people consider you for dating prospects. And when you carry it around for most of your life—well, eventually you absorb the negative comments as directly about you. Even when logically you know they’re not.

Aaaaaand now I’ve just gone on an internal tirade about the social implications of being a “big girl.” I really need some of that hamburger Francesca is eating. Caring this much about what others think of me can only mean my brain cells are dying from the lack of nutrition already.

“I just hate eating healthy,” she whines, bringing me back to the conversation at hand. “And as you can see,” she gestures to her plate,” I have almost zero self-control. So, when people start assuming I’m giving myself an eating disorder, they start shoving food in my face. It makes things a thousand times harder.”

I find it oddly comforting that I have an ally in this dieting business. She may resemble a tiny little elf that I want to put in my pocket, but she understands the struggle. Go figure. “I have the opposite problem. It doesn’t matter what I eat or how little. Someone is always going to comment that maybe I shouldn’t eat as much.”

Francesca clenches her fists and shakes her head. “I hate when people say that shit.” She’s not kidding when she says diets make her cranky. Even hearing about mine is making her agitated. “How is it the twenty-first century and people still haven’t realized that the word ‘pound’ is not synonymous with ‘illness’ and ‘skinny’ is not the same as ‘healthy’? My insides are practically shriveling up, and yours are probably pretty and pink and healthy. And you have boobs!” She bangs her fist on the table and I make a mental note not to turn my back on her for the next six to eight weeks.

“Here,” I say gently, handing her another fry. “I think you need this.”

“Thanks,” she responds quietly and sighs contently as she chews. “But you really do have nice boobs.”

She’s not wrong. “I know.”

Her lips quirk up in a slight smile. “This is going to be a long couple of months, isn’t it?”

“I don’t think I’ll be searching for you in any dark allies, no.” She chuckles in response. “And I might take your stapler for safe keeping just in case.”

“Only if you give it back when you smell Nolan coming.”

“Deal.”

We sit in silence—her enjoying her burger, me not enjoying my salad— and I consider her words. I don’t remember the last time someone complimented me on any part of my body, with the exception of my hair (Thank you, Pantene). Nor has anyone just assumed I’m healthy when the topic of my weight has come up. Not that it comes up often, but people who aren’t obese don’t realize how much it’s talked about in a general fashion. It can get really irritating.

“Hey, I have an idea.”

I glance up at Francesca. If it has anything to do with Nolan and that stapler, I might just go for it. 

“I’m going to assume you brought that salad because it’s hard to cook for one without having a ton of leftovers that go bad. Am I right?”

I nod because she is right. “I spent an hour on Pinterest last night and while there were a few things that made two servings, anything that looked decent was family-sized. Not only would it go to waste before I could eat it, I get bored with my food.”

She nods in understanding. “Me, too. So, what do you think about the idea of trading off?”

Giving up on my lunch, I toss the Tupperware on the table and lean in. “Trading off, how?”

“Well, tonight make one of those family of four recipes. Eat your dinner, pack what’s left as lunch for tomorrow and bring me some, too. Then tomorrow night, I’ll make dinner and bring the leftovers for both of us the next day. That way we’re only cooking every other day. Plus, I usually like other people’s cooking better than my own.”

I quirk my eyebrow at her. “Are you that bad of a cook?”

“Nope. I’m damn good at it. For whatever reason, even a PB and J tastes better if someone else makes it. Probably because it’s made with love.” She can’t even say it with a straight face.

But she’s also got a point. Half the cooking. Double the food. And someone to motivate my eating habits on this journey. If I knew I wouldn’t have a gag reflex from the odor, I could kiss Nolan for tipping Francesca off to my plight.

“I’m convinced,” I finally say, swiping a fry off her plate. “Now you tell me what you want me to make—cauliflower pizza or cauliflower enchiladas?”

We both grimace at the thought. “Aren’t there any gluten-full options?”

“Not in my kitchen. Well, I mean, there won’t be once I start cooking. It’s so much better for you and right now there are too many options.”

“I honestly don’t know what I’ll be in the mood for tomorrow,” she says around the fries in her mouth. “But pizza is harder to re-heat. So, let’s try the enchiladas. But please, not with cauliflower.”

“Agreed. I’ll make it with love instead, just for you.”

She waggles her eyebrows. “Now you’re talking. A little love is all we need.”

“And low carb recipes.”

Her face falls. “Don’t remind me.”

I nod in understanding as she pushes her plate toward me so I can eat more fries. We’ll try again on Day Three.

** END SNEAK PEEK **

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