Dakota London. Destined to travel the world.
Except not really, because in all my twenty-five years, I still haven’t left my hometown.
And then, one day, in true once upon a time fashion, Dominic Kane comes swaggering into the bar where I work. The Dominic Kane. The travel photographer I’ve been following for years, living vicariously through his pictures.
We have this gravity about us. We’re drawn together and couldn’t pull away if we wanted to. This electricity we have, it’s a force of nature.
When he asks me to go with him, it’s like I’m getting everything I ever wanted. But I can’t just leave my life, as small as it may be. Taking a chance like that on a stranger is crazy.
What do you do when the guy you knew better than to go out with steals your purse and disappears when you’re in the bathroom? First, you sling curse words around the restaurant—loudly of course. Maybe bang your fist on a table, causing the silverware to clank against the plates and making all the people around you gasp, jump, and then stare at you like you’re crazy. Then, you call your sisters for help and complain about it with them over margaritas.
At least that’s what I did.
And it hasn’t been working out the way I expected. Not at all.
What did I expect? Comfort. Commiseration. A gentle hand on my shoulder and a kind word for their poor little sister and her bad luck with men.
What am I getting? Not that.
“Come on, Dakota. You just left your purse at the table?” Chelsea, the oldest of us London girls lets loose one of her patented, Judgmental Older Sister sighs and gives me a look that sits somewhere between condescending and sympathetic.
I take a long drink of my margarita—the bartender here at this restaurant is good, but I’m better—and suck in my lips as I swallow. “I didn’t call you out here to point out how this is all my fault.”
“Well of course it’s not all your fault.” Maya, my slightly-sweeter-than-Chelsea-but-still-judgemental-because-she’s-older sister smiles at me as if that will make it all better.
“So it’s still kind of my fault?” And here it comes. All the reasons that Dakota London fucked up once again given to me one line at a time from the two people I trust most in the world.
Chelsea tucks her super straight platinum hair behind her ear and crosses her arms on the table. “Well, you did go out with him even though you met him at the bar called The Bad Apple.”
“Hey! That’s my place of employment, thank you very much! What’s wrong with the bar?”
“It’s called The Bad Apple,” Maya says, as if that clears it all up. “What kind of guys do you think it’s going to attract?”
“I think it’s just the kind of guys I attract.” I drop my chin towards my chest, fully prepared to pout my way through the evening.
Chelsea politely sips at her margarita and puts on the sweetest of faces. “Yeah…” She draws out the word. “About that. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about your choices on the man front.”
“See! There you go blaming me again! This is so not my fault.” I gesture at my empty purse and the people at the surrounding tables who are still eyeing me warily. So I got a little mad when I saw The Asshole had stolen my wallet and left me with a huge ass check to pay and no way to pay for it. I don’t think I’m the only one who would find that just a tad upsetting.
“Aren’t you even a little bit tired of having this conversation?” Maya asks with that same mix of condescension and sympathy that Chelsea has been using.
I should have just called Maya and asked for some help paying the bill and getting home. What was I thinking, calling both of them out here and asking them to have some conciliatory drinks with me?
“I’m sorry,” I say, so ready for this night to be over. Isn’t there like a sister code or something where they’re supposed to stick up for me no matter what? “I wasn’t aware that we’ve had the some jerk stole my wallet and stuck me with the bill conversation before.”
“No…” Chelsea picks at the salt on the rim of her margarita glass and hits me with a look. The look. The one that says I’m not going to like what she has to say. “But we have had the some jerk took advantage of you and now you need our help conversation a lot. Like a lot, a lot.”
“Oh. That one.” I might not like hearing it, but I can’t deny it’s true. I run my hands up into my shoulder length blonde hair. And to think I actually took the time to style it in honor of this night with The Asshole. Wanted to look pretty for him. Just so he could rip me off.
“Yeah. That one.”
“Well. Okay. When you put it that way. I’m very tired of this particular conversation.” I fiddle with the salt shaker in its little metal stand on the table while the waitress come to check on us—eyeing me like I might jump up and bite her or something. “It’s even worse that we’re having it here. Everyone thinks I’m crazy.”
“Well, I’m sure you handled the whole thing so gracefully,” says Maya with a smile that says she knows just exactly how I handled it. Loudly. With much cussing.
“Oh sure.” I put on a Very Serious and Sweet face and nod. “I handled it with my typical grace and charm.”
Chelsea laughs into her margarita and pulls the glass away just enough to speak. “Is that why everyone keeps staring at us?” She takes a long drink and sits the glass down. She’s still laughing, but it’s not at me anymore. It’s because of me. I know she’s always secretly admired my ability to say whatever I’m thinking without worrying what people will think of me. Just like I’ve always admired her ability to hold her tongue when it’s appropriate.
“Maybe.” I draw out the word. “I’m very threatening.”
Maya laughs. “Oh yes. All five foot three inches of you. The scariest little blonde thing in at least three counties.”
“It’s the tattoo,” I say, flashing my wrist to show off the three tiny birds taking flight there. “Terrifying.”
“Utterly.” Chelsea nods knowingly.
“You know,” I say, drawing up my shoulders and releasing them with a sigh. “You two are my favoritest people. Ever.” I mean it. Chelsea and Maya are my best friends. A bond made all the stronger because we shared the same room for most of our lives.
“Sure,” says Maya. “You say that now that you don’t have a way to pay for the drinks.”
“Or the meal you had with that jerk.” Chelsea shakes her head and that Judgy Big Sister look creeps back into her eyes. “Let me guess. You guys had appetizers and dessert.”
“And it was his idea,” Maya adds while I nod, pouting.
“I am such an idiot.” The Asshole had suggested we go all out. Order everything we could possibly want, without worrying about anything. And here I’d thought he was just being romantic…
Chelsea and Maya exchange a look, one that makes me wonder how long they’ve been waiting for a chance to say whatever they’re about to say.
“About that…” Chelsea takes a drink and eyes me with the same wary look the rest of the people in this stupid restaurant have been giving me for the last hour or so. I sit back and prepare myself for whatever they have to say.
“We think you should be more selective about the guys you date.” Maya says it in one big rush of words and then sits back with worry clenching her eyebrows together.
“In fact…” Chelsea sits back, too. The same look of concern tightening her eyes. “We think you should be more selective about everything in your life.” She pauses. Watches me like I’m a wounded tiger who might spring up and eat her at any moment.
I nod. I’d like to say that I have no idea why they’re acting so nervous right now, but I do have a tendency to react emotionally. They’re probably waiting for me to cry. Or yell. Or storm off and leave them with the bill. I won’t lie. I consider all three. But since I pretty much agree with them, I just take a careful drink of my margarita and wait for them to continue.
With another quick glance to Maya, Chelsea leans forward and unleashes The Speech. “You’re so much more than a bartender who works at a cheap bar. You’re so smart. So talented.”
“And too pretty for the jerks you keep picking up.” Maya reaches out and puts her hand on mine.
“What happened to the girl who wanted to travel? The girl who always said even her names were places and if that wasn’t a sign that she was supposed to see the world, then what was? The girl who used to write?”
I clear my throat and fiddle with the salt shaker again. “Travel costs money I don’t have and writing sure won’t pay the bills.” I shrug, trying not to show them how much the realization that real life sucks bothers me. “Besides. I like making drinks at The Bad Apple. Never a dull night, that’s for sure.”
Which was true. I do like the energy of talking to different people all night long. Of the music playing super loud. Of the lights careening off the bottles of liquor lining the shelves on the wall behind the bar. So I’m not a physical therapist like Chelsea or a pediatrician like Maya. So I’m not on the traditional London Fast Track to Success. That doesn’t bother me. At least not a lot. But I am getting really tired of picking up jerks.
“So what do I do?” I ask and hold up a hand as both of my sisters suck in a big breath as if they have an entire novel’s worth of advice for me. “About the not dating jerks thing. The rest of my life is fine.”
Which it is. Kind of. I just need a little more time to figure out what I want to do when I grow up is all.
My sisters both close their mouth against whatever it was they were going to say and each of them lets out a long breath. Chelsea bites her bottom lip while Maya twirls her finger in her long brown hair and looks at the table.
“My life is fine.” I repeat myself because clearly they were more interested in talking about my career choice and living situation than they were about the guys I go out with. “But I have a seriously bad track record with the men. What do I do?”
The girls are quiet. Still. Some more. I’m busy trying to ignore the rush of indignation and irritation roaring through my veins. I’m only twenty-five. So what if they were both college graduates by the time they were my age? I’m not them. That’s been clear our whole lives.
“For one,” Chelsea finally says. “No more picking up guys at the bar.”
“At the bar or at a bar. Because where else am I supposed to pick them up?”
“At bars in general. Just think about the kind of people who hang out in bars all the time.”
“Uhh … the fun kind?” I know Chelsea’s only trying to help, but I love spending my nights off at a bar, drinking in the energy of many people gathered in one place, the music and the dancing, the laughter. Hell, I strike up conversations with strangers just for a chance to see life through their point of view.
“Okay,” says Maya, clearly seeing the landmine Chelsea just stepped onto. “Just the bar. No more bad apples from The Bad Apple.” She chuckles at herself and takes a sip of her margarita, amusement dancing in her eyes.
‘Okay.” I bob my head in agreement. “It’s probably a bad idea to be dating people from work anyway. Next?”
“He needs a home.”
“And a good car.”
“A decent job!”
“A life plan!”
My sisters ricochet their requirements right off each other, one after the other, information coming at me machine gun style.
“Clearly you’ve had time to think about this.”
“We may have talked about it once or twice.”
“Okay, so you want him to have a home, a car, a steady job, a life plan, more brain cells than tattoos. I think I can get behind that.” Even if I don’t have one single clue as to where I was going to find a guy like that. A guy who met those requirements would count as an actual, honest to goodness adult. I’m not exactly the best at adulting and the guys that end up in my circles aren’t that good at adulting either.
“Anything else?” I asked.
“Just remember,” says Chelsea.
Maya and Chelsea took one last look at each other and in then in one rush of words so perfect and in tune they might as well have been choreographed they hit me with their most important requirement.
“You can’t meet him at The Bad Apple.”
Wouldn’t you know, Maya and Chelsea throw down the No More Douchebags gauntlet just in time for the most beautiful male creature to ever walk this earth to swagger right on into The Bad Apple and have a seat at the bar. I’m not lying when I say his entrance is totally worthy of any Hollywood movie ever. He even goes so far as to pause and flash me a swoon-worthy smile before hopping up onto a stool at the bar, laying his phone and laptop down beside him.
But this is where the Hollywood hero picture falls apart a little because who brings a laptop into a bar?
A businessman? A tech mogul? A guy who just totally just took a selfie, flashing that same, slightly familiar and still swoon-worthy smile at his phone? Who knows about the first two, but that last one? Yeah. That just happened.
What kind of guy takes selfies at a bar? Maybe he’s less businessman or tech mogul and more college student or gym rat. But he looks too world-wise to be in college. And not muscle-bound enough to be a gym rat. Not that he’s old and out of shape. He defies classification. Which makes him interesting.
And boy do I love interesting.
“What can I get you?” I lean on the bar and wait to steal this guy’s attention away from his technology.
He glances at me, deems me barely worthy of his time, and goes back to messing with his phone. “Whiskey. Neat.”
Great. Even his drink is bad ass.
And his voice is as dark as his hair, as rich as his drink. His eyes are so brown they look almost black in the low light of The Bad Apple. He glances at me again, probably because I haven’t done anything but stare at him since he sat down. Flushing, I turn away and reach for the Jack Daniels—a safe bet in a bar like this one. If he had a brand, he would have told me. As I pour his drink, I catch movement out of the corner of my eye.
“Did you just take a picture of me?” I ask as I slide his drink across the bar towards him
He nods without looking up from his phone. “Yep. Congratulations. You are about to become mildly famous on the internet.”
He waves his phone at me as if that explains everything and I see he’s logged into Instagram and is clearly in the process of making a post. A bunch of things click into place.
My jaw drops. “You’re Dominic Kane!” There may or may not be a goofy grin stretching my face into something that somewhat resembles a fangirl smile. “The travel photographer, right?”
“None other,” he says and drops his chin in a slight bow. He flares his fingers and smiles. “I didn’t know I was that recognizable.”
“I may or may not be one of your biggest fans.” I smile, hoping that I sound more cool and coy than desperate and gushy. “I kind of live vicariously through your pictures.”
“Sure. I’ve always wanted to travel, but alas…” I glance around the quickly filling bar. “I don’t exactly have the kind of job that allows for it.”
A large herd of actual college kids claim about half the bar in a swarm of testosterone and monosyllabic conversation that fights for dominance over the music throbbing over the speakers. I nod towards Dominic and head over to take their orders, leaning in to hear them over the general cacophony that is The Bad Apple. Of course, they can’t resist flirting and double of course, The Bad Apple doesn’t appear to be their first stop tonight. I fend off a few drunken advances and fill their orders, constantly aware of the guy at the other end of the bar.
The super-hot guy with the coolest job ever.
The mildly famous internet celebrity.
The Instagram personality with over a hundred thousand followers.
The YouTuber with a ton of subscribers.
The guy with the dark hair and dark eyes and a twisting series of tattoos poking out from under his shirt sleeve. The guy who has been on just about every continent on this planet and has the pictures to prove it. A guy who has to have his fair share of interesting stories to share with me, to help me imagine—if only for a second—that I’m anywhere but dumb old Ohio surrounded by anything but rows of corn.
I finish with the college jerks and head back towards Dominic, drawn to him like a moth to a flame, a fish to a lure, a paperclip to a magnet. Like lightning to water. Like plants to sunlight. Like birds to the air and fish to the sea…
Basically, I couldn’t have avoided going to stand next to him if I wanted to.
“Ready for another?” I ask, indicating his empty glass.
Dominic nods and fiddles with his phone while I pour him another couple fingers of Jack.
“That was pro-level stuff over there,” he says, indicating the jock herd with a nod of his head. “I don’t think they even realize how shot down they actually are.”
I shrug. “Can’t tell them what I’m really thinking or my tips suffer.” I lean on the bar again, rising up on my tiptoes to close the distance between us. “Gotta let them think they have a chance.”
“Is that what you’re doing with me?” He smiles in a way that tells me he totally doesn’t believe that. “Making me feel famous so I leave you a good tip?”
“Totally.” I nod and smile and disappear to check on the frat boys.
The rest of the night passes in a flurry of customers and drinks and music so loud I know I’m going to have a headache by the end of the night. Dominic stays. And in between the surge of drink orders, I talk to him.
As much as I try to hide it, I’m totally fangirling. Dominic Kane really is my absolute most favorite person to follow on Instagram. Not only are his pictures truly stunning, but he’s approachable as far as internet personalities go. He responds to the people who comment on his posts, strikes up conversations with them, shares his stories as if they were old friends. I’ve gotten a kick out of his sense of humor for a while now. I’ve never actually commented on his stuff because that’s just not me, but I have liked the hell out of most of them.
The evening stretches on and the bar—which always starts out quiet before it gets too loud—is on its way back to quiet again when I finally park myself near Dominic. “So here’s the thing,” I say, leaning on the bar again. “You took my picture, so I think I should get a picture of you in return.”
“Oh yeah? Is that how this works?” His laptop is closed and his phone is face down beside him and I finally have his full attention. And wow. I’m not sure I was prepared for the power behind those eyes. This is a man who sees stuff for a living. What exactly does he see when he looks at me? I fight the urge to fiddle with my hair. The last thing I want him to see is me being nervous.
“Totally. A picture for a picture.” I nod as if I’m talking about well-known social customs, as if what I’m talking about has been handed down from generation to generation throughout the ages. I pull my phone out of my back pocket like things have already been decided. Which they have, actually.
“You’re a much more interesting subject than I am,” he says as I point my phone at him.
I actually snort and immediately regret it. “No.” I drop my phone and hit him with my most incredulous look. “I’m just a bartender in a little bar in Ohio. You’re a world traveler who inspires hundreds of thousands of people on the internet. You win the interesting game.” I lift my phone up again and Dominic shrugs.
“Let me prove it. Come here.”
Intrigued, I do what he says, coming around the bar to stand next to him. He hops off the stool and takes my phone from me. Leans down to wrap his arm around my shoulder and holds it out at arm’s length. “Say cheese.”
I smile broadly and say cheese. Dominic doesn’t take the picture. I turn to him, confused and get distracted studying his profile, suddenly so very aware of just how much bigger he is than me. How close we are. How he smells like whiskey. How much better looking he is up close.
And that’s when I hear the click of the camera on my phone.
“I so wasn’t ready!” I cry and try to snatch the phone from him so I can delete what’s sure to be one of the worst pictures of me ever.
Dominic chuckles as he holds the phone out of my reach, an easy thing since I’m tiny and he’s apparently not. “Hold on, now,” he says. “Who’s the professional here?”
“Professional or not, I have every right to see that picture and delete it if it’s awful.”
“It’s not awful.”
Dominic lowers the phone and hands it to me. “Just so you know, that picture is my intellectual property and I have every right to sue you if you delete it without my permission.”
I look at him, something stern and real in his voice making me wonder if he’s actually serious. “I won’t delete it.” I slide open the phone and find the picture and just stare.
There he is, smiling that smile that I’ve come to know through so many pictures in so many different places. He’s handsome, of course, always is, his dark features giving him that mysterious look while the warmth of his smile makes him feel like an old friend.
But the woman tucked into his arm? That’s so not me. Dakota London is a tiny blonde, a fun-sized woman. People call me a disco ball. I’m shiny and perky and my nose is slightly too large for my face. I smile too wide for pictures and snort a little when I laugh.
The woman in the picture is none of those things. Well, sure, she looks tiny, dwarfed by Dominic. And yes, she’s blonde, the perfect yin to his dark yang, but there’s a depth to her eyes that doesn’t belong on my face. My lips are parted and pulled up in this perfect little Mona Lisa smile as I study Dominic’s profile. My eyes are lit with the power of deep thoughts and the possibility of intriguing personality.
“See?” he asks, so close that I can feel the warmth of his skin against my cheek even though we’re not touching. The space between us so small that it almost doesn’t exist. “Who’s the interesting subject in this picture?”
I shake my head and drop the phone, careful to turn off the screen so I don’t accidentally delete the picture. “Yeah, but that’s no fair. You waited until I was distracted. In fact, you distracted me on purpose. And like you said, you’re the professional here. You know how to make a blade of grass seem interesting.”
“A blade of grass is interesting if you take the time to really look at it.”
I slide my phone back into my pocket and shake my head. “Nope. You just destroyed your own argument with that nonsense. Don’t get me wrong. It was all very poetic and lovely, but I’m a realist. You travel the world. I work at a bar in the same town I grew up in. One of these things is not like the other.” I wander back around to my space behind the bar.
Dominic doesn’t argue, but I can feel his eyes on me the whole way. And maybe, just maybe, I keep thinking about what he said and wondering if he really finds me as interesting as I find him.
And damn if I’m not busy mentally checking off my sisters’ requirements. Sure, Dominic Kane has a few tattoos, and sure, I met him at The Bad Apple, and okay, he doesn’t actually live around here so anything long-term is off the table.
He has a great job. Travels the world and inspires people all over the internet. Surely Chelsea and Maya could forgive the tattoos and the place we met because he is so damn interesting and not at all at risk of being a serious relationship. Surely they would be cool with me spending more time with Dominic Kane, my most favorite Instagramer of all time. Right?