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I reached under my voluminous tulle skirt and scratched my butt, once, twice, three times—heck, no one was around. I’d been hiding behind a massive topiary in the hallway outside the ballroom of the Evanston Hilton Hotel ever since I’d escaped a herd of drunk second-grade parents and their ten thousand questions about the school’s paltry foreign language program. My dress itched. My nylons itched. I was developing a pretty massive blister from the clear plastic stilettos I had borrowed from my friend Natalie. Even my earrings were killing me. They were like glittery boulders dangling from my lobes.
But I’d make it through tonight. Somehow. I had to.
Using my phone’s camera as a mirror, I checked my appearance. Back when I taught English to fourth graders, I’d ask the kids to add “sparkle” words, fancy adjectives, to their essays. The “sparkle” words for my current state included “laughable,” “absurd,” “risible,” and “ludicrous.” I was a forty-year-old woman—a forty-year-old elementary school principal—in a half-baked Cinderella costume. At least it was Halloween and not, like, some random day in March.
Having to show up here tonight was an unexpected “perk” of my new job. I had to stay and ride it out, all while wearing a smile. I had to prove to the parents, alumni, and assorted boosters that I was a team player, that I was game enough to make a fool of myself up on stage with the rest of the single ladies to raise money for the Glenfield Academy Athletics Association.
This bachelorette auction marked the first of many, many planned fund-raisers this school year, including the Wintertime Alley Night (yes, the school had a functioning bowl-a-rama in its basement), the Cupid’s Crush Valentine’s Day Ball, and the elaborate, black-tie Glenfield Gala to close out the year.
After reapplying my lipstick, I hiked up my skirt and yanked at the waistband of my nylons. If the shoes didn’t kill me, these control-top pantyhose would. I stretched the band to the hilt and let it snap, satisfyingly, against my stomach, just like, I’m sure, the real Cinderella did whenever she had a moment alone.
A cough from across the way drowned out my sigh of momentary relief.
Heart ramming against my ribs, I dropped my skirt and peered around the side of my topiary sanctuary. A shock of dark hair peeked over the bush on the other side of the hall. I had been operating under the assumption of solitude. I’d scratched my ass. I’d—oh crap—lifted up my skirt and fixed my nylons. My face right now was an inferno.
“I didn’t want to say anything.” The lurker stepped out from behind the bushes. This guy had come dressed in a regular old tux in lieu of a costume to an event the planning committee had expressly billed as a “costume party.” What a rebel. “You seemed to think no one was around.”
“Yeah, I kinda did, dude who leers at unsuspecting women from bushes outside hotel ballrooms.” I stayed put behind my little tree, finger poised on my phone’s 911 button.
“I swear I wasn’t leering.” He held up his hands in surrender. From what I could see through the branches, he was not unattractive. But still. He was a lurker. I kept my finger where it was. “I was hiding, too.”
“What makes you think I was hiding?” I’d entered interrogation mode. The same skills that made someone a stellar FBI agent made me an excellent teacher and elementary school principal. “You’re the one who said ‘hiding.’ Who were you hiding from?”
“Well, that’s personal.”
Phone still at the ready, I stepped out into the open. Time to be a grown-up. Time to put on my professional principal persona and take charge, nip this conversation in the bud. Besides, while it was true that this guy could be here to harm me, the more likely scenario was that he was someone important to my career—a parent, a rich alumnus, a reporter. I owed it to myself and my profession to handle this ugly situation with grace—all the while prepared to scream bloody murder if necessary. I held out my right hand, the one I hadn’t just used to scratch my butt. “I’m Erin.”
His eyes lit up with recognition. “Erin Sharpe!” He grinned and, whoa, it hit me that my earlier assessment of “not unattractive” was a gross understatement. This dude was hot—tall and lean but muscular, in his expertly fitted suit. He’d tousled his cocoa-colored hair in a way that was supposed to look natural but probably took him a half hour to accomplish, and he wore glasses with thick black frames that would’ve looked nerdy on anyone but him. They made him look like Clark Kent, only minimally masking his Superman persona. Pursuing this guy would stress me out. He was much too cool for me. I bet he stayed up way past ten p.m. and enjoyed “spending quality time together.” Definitely not my type.
Besides, he was a tree lurker.
I mean, obviously. I had standards.
Yes, I was dressed like fucking Cinderella at a bachelorette auction, but I had standards.
Also, yes, I was an elementary school principal who used the word “fuck” liberally while not at work. You would, too, if you spent most of your day biting your tongue around surly parents, snippy teachers, and unruly students.
“How do you…?” I asked. Even though I knew how he probably knew me. It had been big news around these parts when I left my job in the Chicago Public Schools to take over as principal at the Glenfield Academy. Chicago was a series of small towns in a big metropolitan area, and I’d come in as quite the curiosity on the North Shore—an outsider from “the city,” who had never attended private school before, let alone taught at one.
“You’re Dirt’s girlfriend,” Glasses Dude said. Thaaaat…was not what I’d expected him to say.
He narrowed his eyes and shook his head slightly, waiting for a hint of recognition from me. “We met at Loyola…?”
Ohhh. Right. The night my ex had dragged me to his twentieth high school reunion so he could show all the guys who’d once shunned him that he still had his hair. “Dirk,” I said, though who knew why I bothered to defend him by invoking his real name. Old habits died hard, I guessed. “And we broke up.”
Glasses Guy grinned. His teeth were perfect, straight, and white. My dentist dad would probably tell me to lock this dude down now, which, get out of my head, Dad. He’s not the one for us. “You stole the wine,” the guy said.
“Say what now?” I knew exactly what he meant but was shocked he remembered it.
“You stole the wine.”
“Yeah, I know what I did, but why do you?”
“Because it was the most amazing thing that happened that night. You saved the whole party.” He raised his hand and I reached up to high-five him, which was odd, but… okay. I may have noted the size of his hands in the process, not that I looked on purpose. It was just that Dirk’s hands had been so small we could’ve shared gloves. The difference was staggering. Anyone would’ve noticed. Whoop-de-do, Superman had big hands. It hardly counted as breaking news.
“Dirk didn’t think my stealing the wine was so great,” I said.
“Dirk’s an idiot.”
I shrugged. I couldn’t argue with that. At least not anymore.
The guy swept his arm in front of him as if preparing to paint me a mental picture. “Our twenty-year high school reunion. Everyone drinking and having fun, so much fun that we ran out of alcohol. And who comes out of the woodwork with a brilliant idea no one else had thought of— to run up to the school library and pilfer the wine from the guys celebrating their thirty-fifth reunion?” He stared right at me. “You.”
My face flushed. Dirk had full-on berated me during the car ride home. He’d said I’d embarrassed him by taking the six unopened bottles from upstairs. I shrugged. “I just figured the thirty-fifth reunion was filled with a bunch of straight old guys, and none of them were drinking the sauvignon blanc.”
“Like I said, brilliant.”
I had not been called “brilliant” by a man who wasn’t my boss or professor in about, oh, ten years. It didn’t suck. The dude held out his hand again, and I shook it. His hands dwarfed mine. Everything about him dwarfed me, and I was not a tiny lady by any means. Feeling diminutive was a whole new sensation for me, one that I bashfully enjoyed.
“I’m Ian, by the way. Ian Donovan.”
“Ian Donovan,” I repeated. “So are you a parent or alum?” And, yeah, I checked his finger. No ring.
Ian chuckled. “I am definitely not a parent.” He looked me up and down, and I self-consciously crossed my arms over my Cinderella dress. “You’re in the auction, then?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Whatever.” I was totally in the auction, but I couldn’t admit that to this too-cool guy, who’d called me brilliant. No truly brilliant person had to get up on stage and parade around, begging for someone to bid on her. I felt like an old mutt in a crowded dog shelter.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” Ian said. “The Halloween auction is a long-standing tradition, and really it only amounts to having to sit next to the person who buys you at dinner. It’s fun, and it helps fund the school’s basketball teams. No big deal.”
“So you’ve done this a lot?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Never. I come for the spectacle only. No bidding.”
“You come to watch the single women get picked over by the kind of guy who needs to buy a date.”
“It’s not as tragic as you make it out to be. No one expects the date to extend beyond tonight, believe me. My best friend, Scott, buys his mom every year. Seriously. Just think of this as a free meal.”
A free meal. That was how Nat had sold the event to me after my first anti-auction tirade, knowing I’d be loath to turn down a dinner. A girl’s gotta eat. “Well, I do love Stephanie Izard.” The “date” at the end of the auction was dinner at Girl and the Goat. Even if I didn’t meet the love of my life tonight, at least I’d be treated to some spicy hamachi crudo and green beans that were, in my experience, way better than sex.
The door to the ballroom swung open and the auctioneer’s voice boomed. “Our first bachelorette tonight is the lovely and talented travel blogger, Maria Minnesota…”
I nodded toward the ballroom. “You coming?”
Ian stared at the door. His face had gone white. “No.” “Suit yourself.” I made a move toward the door and
nearly ran right into Natalie.
“Erin, I’ve been looking for y—” Her eyes snapped to Ian. “You. You stay away from her.” Hands on hips, Nat glared at him. She looked glorious in her Nakia costume from Black Panther. No silly petticoats for Nat. She’d gone full badass tonight—form-fitting green dress, hair done in tight knots.
Ian held up his hands in surrender. “How’re you doing, Nat? It’s been a while.”
“Ten years,” she said. “Not long enough.” Nat grabbed my wrist and yanked me toward the party like her disobedient child. “We’re going to the auction. You”—she sneered over her shoulder at Ian—“can go to hell.”
“A little dramatic?” I hissed as she pulled me into the dreaded ballroom. My face had probably turned beet red from embarrassment. “We were just talking.”
“Ian Donovan is bad news,” Nat said. “A ten-foot pole isn’t enough. You don’t touch that guy with a fifty-yard steel rod.”
“You don’t think I know that?” I said. “Give me some credit. He’s totally not my type.”
“I’m glad you realize that.”
“Of course I realize that.” I glanced back at Ian, who had already disappeared, and ignored the unexpected pang of disappointment in my gut.
I spun around on the sidewalk on Orrington. I’d dashed out of the hotel after Natalie Carter, of all fucking people, had burst in and saved Erin Sharpe from talking to me. My friend Scott stood outside the hotel, chatting up a wispy young blond dude in a waiter’s tux, from whose lips dangled a lit cigarette. “This is Travis,” Scott said.
“Nice to meet you, Travis.” I shoved my hands into my pockets and nodded slightly. Travis was obviously Scott’s target for the night. He and I had developed similar philosophies about our love lives—no sleepovers, no second dates, no strings. These rules had been born out of necessity, not frivolity. We owned our own business, which took us all over the globe. Scott and I were too busy with work for relationships. Only three things currently mattered to us: friends, family, and Fumetsu Enterprises—the Japanese tech company we were currently courting. They were gonna be huge…once they perfected their technology.
Scott handed his business card to Travis. “Call me later.”
Travis snuffed out his cigarette on the concrete and headed back inside.
I rescued the dead butt from the ground and tossed it into the garbage. “Littering?” I said. “A real winner you found there.”
“They can’t all be perfect,” Scott said. “So where the hell were you running off to?”
“You know where I was going,” I said. “Or at least you know why I was running.” He’d dragged me to this event tonight, because this was our “tradition” and because Tommy, the third in our BFF trio, had stayed home with his wife and kid, and Scott needed me. I’d agreed to come, even though I knew this year would be different. This year I’d broken my own rules and had gone out with a woman twice. The last text I got from her had hinted that she wanted me to bid on her, but the truth was, I never bid on anyone. I made a sizable donation to the school at the event every year, but I never, ever bid. It had become a hard and fast rule. And I would not break it for a woman I barely knew.
“Maria Minnesota,” Scott said.
“I was out in the hall when I heard her name called, and I ran.” God, I was an asshole. This was the problem with letting anyone step even an inch inside my fortress of solitude. They developed expectations I couldn’t meet, and I, inevitably, ended up looking like a dick. This thing with Maria had been fun, and I’d gone into it thinking we were totally on the same page—no hopes that our non- relationship could ever evolve into something more. She was a travel blogger who spent half her life out of town. I was a venture capitalist who traveled the globe. I could be in Dubai one day and Dover the next. When we met, Maria and I agreed we’d meet up when we were both in Chicago once in a while or whatever, nothing concrete. Then she started calling me every other day and texting me personal questions, and I didn’t do personal. I didn’t do “getting to know you.” We hadn’t been on the same page at all. She’d misrepresented herself. And now she stood up there on stage, expecting me to bid on her, even though I’d told her point-blank that I didn’t do that sort of thing.
“You’re a real prince, you know that.” Scott raised an eyebrow.
“Fuck you,” I said.
He wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “You know I’m joking.”
I leaned my head against my buddy’s shoulder. The fabric of his tux tickled my cheek. “This event is so stupid.”
“You’re just realizing that now?”
I pointed to the street. “Come with me. Let’s hop in a cab and go downtown where we belong.”
“Can’t. Mom needs me.”
I groaned. “Right.” Scott’s mom was a delightful woman who’d basically raised Tommy and me along with her son. She’d kicked Scott’s deadbeat dad out of the house when Scott was ten, and her dutiful son had bid on her in this auction every year since he turned twenty-one.
“And Tommy’s not here, so I need you.”
Tommy was home with his wife and new baby. He was our business partner, too, but he’d decided to roll the dice and settle down. I was happy for him, but Scott remained dubious, believing there was no way Tommy wouldn’t fuck this up.
Scott jumped away, clapping his hands, as if he’d just stumbled upon a brilliant idea. “You should bid on Mom with me. There’s no rule that we can’t split the date, is there?”
“Probably?” I said. “I’ve never read the bylaws for this thing.” I stared off in the distance. It was a Saturday night, Halloween weekend. People both in costume and not crowded the sidewalks, headed to restaurants, bars, or the train into the city. They all had the right idea. None of them had gotten dressed to the nines for the express purpose of not bidding on someone at a bachelorette auction.
“What else is going on?” Scott asked. “There’s more to this story. It’s not just Maria Minnesota.” As always, he announced her name like a game-show host.
“You know who I just ran into?” I nodded back toward the hotel.
Scott shook his head.
Scott’s hand went to his mouth. “Fuck. That’s a blast from the past.”
My mind kept replaying the look on her face when she caught me talking to Erin Sharpe. “She told me to go to hell.”
“Well.” Scott shrugged. “That sounds about right.”
“She treated me like a wad of old gum she’d scraped off her shoe.” Natalie had looked at me like Tommy’d been looking at me lately, ever since his kid had made her debut. He’d morphed into one of those “wives and daughters” guys, who’d been fine with my single life before he became a dad but had suddenly developed empathy for women because that could be his little girl someday. Utter bullshit. Besides, I did think about the women’s feelings. That was why I always told them upfront: No strings. No second dates. No, I will not be bidding on you in the goddamn bachelorette auction.
“You’re preaching to the choir,” Scott said, stopping my speech with a hand before it began.
“I mean, we don’t lead anyone on, you and I. We come right out with it: we like being single. We plan on staying that way.” Though I’d never been in a real relationship, Scott had—for four years, bridging his twenties and thirties. When Joe left because of Scott’s grueling travel schedule, it wrecked him. He came to the same conclusion I had years before: work trumped romance. “We’re busy men who own our own company and travel a lot.”
I rubbed my hands together. The temperature had dropped since the sun went down, and my righteous indignation no longer kept me warm. “We have full lives. We take care of our friends and family.”
“We donate a shit-ton of money to our alma mater, as well as other charities,” Scott agreed.
“We’re the good guys.” The pressure eased off my chest. The version of me Nat remembered had been kind of a jerk. He’d been a work in progress. Now I was Ian Fucking Donovan 2.0. I’d clearly laid out the parameters for Maria, and she’d tried to escalate things. “I don’t owe Natalie anything. Or Maria. I have nothing to prove to anyone inside that hotel.”
“Which is why you’re going to be an adult, come back inside with me, and face your fears.” Scott grabbed my tuxedo jacket as I tried to escape to the curb.
When Scott and I returned to the ballroom, we found the auction in full swing. “I hope Mom hasn’t gone yet!” Scott grabbed a program and discovered that, nope, we hadn’t missed bidding on his mother.
Heads bowed in conversation, Nat sat with Erin Sharpe at one of the front tables, right near the edge of the stage. A pit formed in my gut. Who knew what bullshit Nat had told her. Not that I cared what Erin thought about me, but I was a businessman. I liked to be liked. My livelihood depended on it. Plus, she was principal of the school where I directed many of my charitable efforts. We were bound to run into each other again, and Erin’s two ties to me were the guy I’d picked on in high school and the woman who’d had to deal with the aftermath of my one-night stands for three years.
Fuck. Maybe I was an utter tool.
Erin was one of the last to be auctioned. The way she approached the spotlight reminded me of one of those old gladiator movies. I half expected her to take the mic and announce, “We who are about to die salute you.” She’d hardened her face, ready for battle, totally contradicting the Cinderella vibe of the rest of her look, what with the flouncy blue dress and the sparkly headband in her short, punky platinum hair. She personified a chip on one’s shoulder, and I liked that about her. She hadn’t gone all shy and meek after realizing she’d accidentally shown me her ass tonight. “Next up,” said Jennifer, head of the fund-raising committee, who had agreed to serve as auctioneer tonight, “we have Miss Erin Sharpe.”
“Doctor Erin Sharpe,” she hissed into the microphone. I held up my drink in salute, laughing. The balls on Dr. Sharpe. Now this was definitely the same woman who’d stolen all the white wine from a bunch of fifty-three-year- old men. “Good for her. Can you believe Jennifer called her ‘Miss’?” I said.
“Classic Jennifer.” Scott wasn’t paying actual attention. Fielding texts from Travis the waiter had occupied his mind space.
“Sorry,” Jennifer said with a sniff. “Doctor Erin Sharpe. Dr. Sharpe is the new principal at Glenfield Academy. She likes long walks on the beach—”
Erin glared down at Natalie, who had definitely roped Erin into this nonsense. Natalie taught at the school, but, as an alumna, she still ran with this crowd. She might have dressed like a superhero spy tonight, but her North Shore princess roots ran deep.
“Dr. Sharpe loves reading poetry to her lovers in the moonlight.”
“Oh my God. No, I do not.” Erin lunged for Jennifer. “Are you reading someone else’s card?”
Jennifer jumped back as Erin scanned the index card.
She tossed it to the ground. “Well, none of that is right.” She wrapped a slender hand around the microphone. “I’m Erin Sharpe. I have a PhD in education. I’m forty, recently dumped by my boyfriend of ten years, and I like crappy television.” She raised her arms in surrender. “Have at me, boys.”
How had Dirt managed to woo this fireball? What a fucking waste. Well, maybe she’d find someone good tonight, to make up for the lost Dirt years. I glanced around the room, as paddle after paddle flew up. There had to be someone here worthy of Erin Sharpe, someone smart enough, cool enough, kind enough. The kind of guy who’d help her steal wine from another party, not berate her for it. The Anti-Dirt.
Mark Marrs was bidding on her. He was… Well, he had money. But so did everyone in this room. He had the reputation at my country club for being the go-to guy for really rough vintage porn. Out. Sorry, Mark Marrs.
Tim Cleary was okay, but kind of anti-intellectual, to put it mildly. He’d inherited a bunch of money from his mom’s family when he turned twenty-one and had basically done nothing since graduating from Harvard, except ride on yachts, complain about the waitstaff at various restaurants, and tell people he’d gone to Harvard. Big old nope.
Bill Lowery could work…maybe… He was nice, at least, but according to Scott, he might not be all that into the ladies. And Scott knew everything when it came to matters of the glass closet.
Then there was Paul Pfister, heir to the Pfister fortune, related, somehow, to the British royal family, or so he liked to say. Greasy-haired, skinny, annoying like a freaking gnat. He was pretentious with a capital P. He’d probably be no different than Dirt, really, all told. He was Dirt with money.
And he was about to win Erin.
Ready to collect his prize, Paul basically vibrated in his seat, beaming at his grandmother, his plus-one for the night, while waving his paddle in the air.
“Fucking Paul Pfister.” I reached across the table and plucked my paddle from underneath Scott’s napkin. Hell, it was just one dinner, and I’d planned to donate the money anyway. I lofted my bidding paddle high in the air. “I’m in. Forty grand.”
Jennifer banged the gavel. “Erin Sharpe to Ian Donovan for forty thousand dollars. The Glenfield Academy basketball teams thank you for your generosity. We’ll be able to afford that new floor!”
My eyes swung right to Erin, who stood on stage, her mouth agape. All the color had drained from her face.
I waved my paddle at her sheepishly. So much for never bidding on anyone.
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