Looking back, Christen should have been suspicious from the very beginning. Sure, she loved her younger sister and it wasn’t uncommon for them to hang out and get dinner. What was uncommon was for Channing to insist that it happen on a Tuesday night, and to graciously insist that she would get the bill.
“So how are things at the rescue?” Channing asked, smiling at the waiter as he placed their margaritas in front of them. Christen’s heart warmed, thinking of the adorable dogs she spent her days with.
“It’s great! Jenni got us in contact with a local high school, so now we have all kinds of volunteers to come and spend time with the pups. Really, if we keep getting the word out like we have been doing, we might be able to get more funding and be able to take in more dogs.”
“That’s awesome.” Channing licked at the salt decorating her rim. “And what about things outside of the rescue?”
“Khaleesi and Morena are great! I actually just got them new matching collars-”
“I was actually asking about your social life,” Channing laughed.
“Oh.” Christen gave a little shrug. “I mean, it’s fine.”
“Well I’m busy, Chan. I spend every day at the rescue, it’s not as if I can spend Friday night out on the town when I have to be up at 6.”
“Except Jenni could always take the early shift.”
Christen hit her with an unimpressed eyebrow raise. “Jenni? Please. She hates getting up early more than you do.”
“True. But she would do it if you told her why.”
“Eh.” Christen stirred her drink, watching the ice spin around the glass. “There’s not anyone I’m really interested in.”
“Okay, but are you looking?”
“Yes!” she replied defensively.
“Just…” Christen floundered for a moment then sighed. “I’m busy Channing. Not to mention, I’m happy! I like my life exactly how it is.”
“But Chris, you’re like… old.” Christen threw a chip at her younger sister, who batted it away with a laugh. “You’re 32!”
“Yeah, not exactly menopausal yet.”
“I’m just trying to point out that you’re entering the time of your life when most people settle down and get married, pop out a few kids. Your biological clock is ticking!”
Christen swallowed the large sip of margarita she had just taken. “That’s unfair and sexist,” she started immediately. “No one ever questions a man’s timeline-”
“I know, I know.” Channing swirled her chip through the bright green guacamole. “Are you on the apps?”
Christen wrinkled her nose. “No way.”
“Because! It’s…” She sighed. “It just seems so impersonal. Matching up with someone the same way you hire a moving company or order take out. I hate it.”
“So you like to spend time with the person first?”
“Yeah!” Christen picked up her silverware to make room for the plate of fajitas the waiter had just shown up with. “You have to see if there’s that spark.”
“So there was a spark with Antony Alvez?”
Christen rolled her eyes with a laugh. “I was seventeen, I wasn’t thinking about sparks I was thinking about prom dates.”
“Did you see that his little brother went into the navy?”
And just like that, the conversation slipped blissfully away from Christen’s dating life. Or so she thought.
It was after they had finished their meals and the plates were cleared away that Channing reached across the table for her hands. “So… I have something to tell you.”
Dread filled Christen’s stomach. “Oh god. Tell me you’re not pregnant.”
“What? Ew, no.”
“Oh.” She gave her head a little shake. “Then what is it?”
Her little sister gave her a nervous smile. “I… Well I might have taken things into my own hands.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well I was hanging out with Auntie Rae and Vanessa and we were talking about you, and then it was right there on the TV-”
“Channing, just spit it out.”
“You know the TV show Ever After?”
Christen’s head spun a bit. “Um… I guess? It’s the dating show, where they have the like twenty girls-”
“And they’re all dating the same guy and he keeps sending girls home until he finds his one true love.” Christen batted her eyelashes for effect. “What about it?”
Channing gave her a nervous smile. “We… we submitted you for it.”
“What?” Christen’s voice rang our across the little Mexican food restaurant, making a few other tables turn to look at them.
“It’s a great opportunity!”
She brought her hands to her temples. “You signed me up for a reality show without mt knowledge or consent?”
“It was Auntie Rae’s idea,” Channing offered weakly.
“No. Absolutely not.”
“How pathetic do you think I am that I need to go on national TV to find a partner?!”
“Well maybe if you didn’t bury yourself in your work, we wouldn’t have needed to.”
Christen grabbed her purse from the back of her chair. “You’ve lost your mind if you think I’m saying yes to this.”
“Just think about it! Think about the exposure it’ll get the rescue!” This made Christen pause. It really would be nice to get word out across the nation about her business. With more money they could improve their facilities, take in more dogs, maybe even hire another employee. She shook her head, knowing that’s exactly what Channing was wanting her to think.
Channing grabbed her hand before she could storm away. “Just think about it okay? You were chosen out of thousands of applicants, and who knows, maybe you would fall in love with him! At the very least, you would have some fun. And you don’t have to decide right now! You have until the end of the month.”
“I don’t need until the end of the month. I have my answer: no.” And with that, Christen was sweeping out of the restaurant, groaning at her family’s inability to leave her be.
Four days later she found herself unexpectedly home early, Jenni having kicked her out of the office after her fourth yawn. Christen had picked up some Indian food on the way home along with a bottle of wine. She settled in on the couch with Morena and Khaleesi on either side of her. She grabbed the remote and began to scroll through the TV guide. She scoffed upon seeing that Lifetime was playing a marathon of the TV show she had been doing her best to forget existed: Ever After. She jammed select on the remote and picked up her curry, ready to hate watch an episode or two before falling into bed.
Except suddenly it was 3 am and she was watching the finale. The dogs had left her to it hours earlier, unamused by her talking at the TV, giving her opinions and reacting to the drama that was unfolding.
She pressed her lips to her empty wine glass, watching with bated breath as one of the two remaining suitor, Zach, got down on one knee in front of the princess, Brianna. If anyone had been around to witness, she would have insisted that the tears in her eyes were because of the entire bottle of wine she had consumed, or the late hour, loathe to admit that she was actually a little touched by the earnestness in his voice as he spoke.
“Brianna,” he whispered through the TV. “I’ve spent the last two months getting to know you, and slowly but surely falling in love with you. I never thought this could happen to me, but here I am, and I just want to ask, from the bottom of my heart, if you would do me the immense pleasure of becoming wife, and living happily ever after.”
Christen sighed, caught up in the romance. Of course Brianna would choose Zach. He was the obvious choice! Sure, Daniel J had the whole tall dark and handsome thing going for him, but Zach was such a sweet guy! He would make an incredible husband. She couldn’t help but idly wonder if Zach was as good in bed as Brianna had made it seem in her talking head.
On screen, Brianna took a shaky breath. “Zach… I’m so glad you came on this season. I feel as if I’ve really had the chance to look into your soul during this time, and I feel so lucky to know you. And there have been times that I couldn’t help but dream of a future with you. That being said… I have to say no.”
Christen audibly gasped.
“I just, when it comes down to it, I think that Daniel is the person I’m supposed to be with.”
“Are you crazy?” Christen asked her darkened living room. “Who picks Daniel J over Zach? No way!” She placed her wine able on the coffee table, her heart aching at the way Zach slowly got to his feet with a stunned expression, somehow finding it in him to wish her happiness even as he was being broken up with.
Christen glanced at the clock, shocked to see that it was so late. She grabbed her phone, intending to go straight to bed, then paused. While the TV went to commercial, she searched Zach’s name on Instagram, pulling up his page. What she saw made her bring her phone closer to her face, making sure she was really seeing what she thought she was.
Was… Zach Ertz the new suitor?
His posts certainly seemed like he was, all picture of his smiling face, a rose in one hand, a crown in the other.
Was this the man she had the chance to date if she did this dumb reality show?
No, she reminded herself, it wasn’t really dating. After all, Christen would be one of thirty girls. And she wasn’t going on the show, so it really didn’t matter.
She let her phone go dark and stood up from the couch with a groan, stretching her limbs. She let the girls out to use the bathroom one last time while she brushed her teeth, then slipped into bed. She would never admit if as she drifted off her mind slipped into some elaborate fantasy where she and Zach rode off into the sunset and lived in matrimonial bliss.
“I mean, can you believe her?” Christen dragged the bag of dog food down the hallway. “She didn’t even ask me first!”
Jenni, her best friend and business partner laughed, following along in the wake of Christen’s indignation. “Of course she didn’t, you would have said no.”
“Of course I would have!” Christen ripped open the top of the bag and retrieved a scoop, handing the other to Jenni so they could begin the process of feeding the dogs.
“Because you’re basically a hermit.”
“Right, I- Hey, I am not!”
Jenni shrugged. “I mean, be honest Christen, when is the last time you went on a date?”
Christen opened her mouth to retort but paused, her mind furiously trying to remember how long it had been. Surely it hadn’t been… she’d someone since…
Jenni put her hands on Christen’s shoulders. “Hey. I know things were rough when you broke up with Lena. You took it really hard.”
It had been a few years since she had last seen her ex-girlfriend, but the name still soured something in Christen’s stomach. “I went on some dates after her,” she mumbled.
“Not really. I mean, yes, you physically went to dinner or drinks with a few people, but mentally and emotionally you were completely shut down. And I’m not saying you didn’t have the right to be, at the time. But it’s been two years, Chris. You deserve to put yourself back out there.”
Christen busied herself with pouring food into one of the dog’s cages, a scrappy little mutt named Mikey. “So I have to put myself out there on live tv?”
“I mean hey, nothing like jumping into the deep end to teach you how to swim,” Jenni grinned.
She shot her a look. “I know how to swim,” she quipped back.
“Yeah, but you’ve been out of the water for too long.”
Christen straightened up. “I would just embarrass myself.”
“Have you seen some of the girls they bring on? You’ll be fine.”
“But it really doesn’t matter because I have responsibilities here. It’s not like I can just take a six week vacation.”
“Um, yes you can. What else is being the owner good for?”
“What, and just leave you here to run the rescue by yourself?”
Jenni knelt down to scratch the ears of an elderly black lab named Mocha. “You were just saying the other day that we were getting more volunteers than we had work for. So the high school kids will be having to do some actual chores rather than just play with the pups, so what?”
Christen shook her head. “But what about Khaleesi and Morena? Who would take care of them?”
Jenni rolled her eyes. “Oh no, if only you had a best friend who loved your dogs more than life and was willing to watch them. Or a younger sister. Or an older sister. Or a dad-”
“Okay, okay I get it.”
Jenni put a hand on her shoulder. “Listen, if you really don’t want to do it then don’t. But if part of you is… I don’t know, interested or intrigued, at all considering it, then I say go for it. Why not? You deserve a chance at happiness, Chris. We all do.”
Christen shewed on her bottom lip. “And it won’t be like… completely ridiculous and cringey? I won’t be a total laughingstock?”
Jenni screwed up her face. “Mm… I didn’t say that- hey!” She dodged Christen’s smack with a laugh. “I’m kidding. But for real, Chris: if you want to give it a go, I’ll cover for you here at the rescue. Don’t let that be what’s holding you back.” She shrugged. “And really, the whole thing would give the rescue some good, nationwide press. Do it for the dogs!”
“No,” Christen said firmly. “If I do this, I’m doing it because… Because he seems like a really great guy. He’s sweet and charming and funny. No other reason.”
Jenni smiled. “Well I know I’m not the one who went to Stanford here but,” she handed her scoop to Christen, “It sounds like you just answered whether or not you want to do it.”
Christen groaned as Jenni walked away. “There’s still a lot of reasons as to why I shouldn’t do this!”
She watched as her friend continued to walk towards he front office. “Yup, and I’ll be here to listen to those excuses until I’m off at six!”
Christen found herself sitting at her dining room table, staring hard at her laptop. She took a deep breath then picked up her phone, scrolling through her contacts until she found the one person she knew she could depend on to give her an honest, logical answer.
“Tell me not to do this.”
“Not to do what?” Tyler asked.
“Not to say yes to going on Ever After.” There was a pause. “Tyler?”
“Well… do you want to do it?”
“Ty, are you serious?”
Her older sister sighed. “When Channing told me I thought it was a joke. But then she explained her reasoning and… I don’t know, Chris. What do you have to lose?”
Tyler laughed. “Chris, you’re hot and smart and kind and a great person. You’re not going to embarrass yourself. That’s just not who you are.”
“But I’m gonna get dumped on national TV.”
“You don’t know that! Maybe you and Zach will hit it off. Or maybe you won’t, but you’ll get picked to be the princess next season.”
Christen rolled her eyes and let out a huffy chuckle. “No way.”
There was a muffled noise on the other side. “Listen, Kam and I are headed out to dinner so I’m just going to come out and say it. If you truly don’t want to do it, you don’t want the chance to get to know Zach, then stay home and let yourself get replaced by some mediocre white girl. But if there’s a part of you who thinks that you might find happiness, or even just have fun… I think you owe it to yourself.”
Christen sighed. “I’m scared,” she admitted in a murmur.
“I know. But… life is scary. Doesn’t mean you should spend the rest of your life holed up in your house with your dogs. Unless that’s what you want.” There was more muffled noise. “Okay, we’re going to be late for our reservation. But Kam and I love you, and we support you, whatever decision you make. Okay?”
Christen groaned. “You were supposed to make the decision for me.”
Tyler laughed. “It’s your life.”
“That’s never stopped you before!”
Christen mumbled her goodbyes and hung up the phone. She placed it facedown on the table and took a deep breath, staring at the Ever After contract she had been emailed. She turned to where the dogs were laying on the rug.
“Khaleesi? Morena? Any advice?”
They blinked sleepily at her, Khaleesi’s tail lightly thumping against the wall behind her.
Christen sighed, wishing, not for the first time, that her mom was around so that she could ask her advice. Although, if she was being honest with herself, she already knew what her mom would say.
Life’s too short, baby. You have to risk a little in order to live big. She could practically smell her perfume in the air as her warm voice echoed through her mind.
She gathered all of the courage she had, along with whatever little ‘fuck it’ attitude she possessed, and quickly filled out the contract, signing her name electronically and hitting send before she had a chance to talk herself out of it.
Her computer chimed, signaling the email had sent, and she smiled. “Alright. Decision made. I’m going. I’m going to be a contestant on Ever After,” she said aloud. Then the enormity of what she had just said hit her in the stomach, making the smile slip away, replaced with a look of panic.