Prologue: Matchmaker, Matchmaker

"You don't initiate anything. You just do basic Caucasian sex. And it's just like 'bam, bam done.' That's it."

"Oh my god," Lucy blurts, pausing with a piece of sushi halfway to her mouth, eyes glued to the red-haired woman on the television screen that is absolutely ripping her husband a new one for being selfish in bed. "Did she just say he —"

Jackson whacks the couch with his hand as he rocks forward with laughter. "Look at his face. 'Basic Caucasian sex'. I'm dead. That's gonna be epic on the reunion as a playback."

"Are you tired of being single, but stuck in the endless cycle of swiping and dating that never seems to go anywhere? Are you ready to settle down in a committed relationship and start the rest of your life? Then come join the social experiment that's been making successful matches for over 15 years with an astounding success rate of over 70%. OMG I Married a Stranger is casting now in LA."

Lucy freezes, overwhelmed by a sudden and completely unexpected wave of excitement. What the hell?

"Jackson?" she finally manages.

"Huh?" Jackson responds around a mouthful of edamame. "I think — what if I applied?"

"Applied for what?"

"The show."

"What show?"

Lucy whacks him with a throw pillow and Jackson protests as a stray edamame arcs through the air before landing on their rug a few feet away.

"This show."

"What?! Are you crazy?"

Lucy just stares back at him.

"You are crazy."

"I know… I know… it's trash reality tv and I can only imagine what a nightmare actually having to film it would be, but… This whole matchmaking process they use — I've read about it before. It's actually based on a whole lot of legitimate psychology on compatibility. The success rate speaks for itself. And there's no argument that arranged marriages aren't empirically significantly more successful. There have been multiple studies —"

"Lucy," Jackson interjects. "I don't need to hear about the studies. Are you actually serious? This is something you'd really want to do?"

"I mean… I'm not getting any younger. My mom actually set an appointment for me to get my eggs frozen without even talking to me about it the other day."

"Your parents would hate it," Jackson points out.

"That's just a bonus," Lucy laughs. "Anyway, all of my friends have basically settled down. You and Sterling are practically engaged. And you know how crazy my work can get —"

"I know how crazy you let it get," Jackson corrects.

"Takes one to know one," Lucy retorts, sticking her tongue out before continuing. The laughter slips out of her tone, "And I just… dating has been really hard for me since…"

Jackson's face softens and he places his hand over Lucy's to give it a comforting squeeze.

"I don't want to be alone forever," she finishes softly.

"Oh Lucy," Jackson tugs her into his side for a hug. "You won't. You are too incredible for that to happen. I won't let it. Worst case, after the wedding and a lengthy honeymoon in Europe, we'll move you into Sterling's pool house."

Lucy snorts, "How gracious of you."

"It's actually a very nice pool house…" Jackson's smile fades as he meets her eyes, "Lucy, are you sure this is something you'd want to do? With everything that happ —" he cuts himself off when he sees the look on her face. "I just mean — you've seen the show. You're literally marrying a stranger. Going on a honeymoon with a stranger. Moving in with a stranger. You'd be alone with a man you've never met. A lot of the time."

"A man that is theoretically perfect for me. But yes, I hear you," her eyes look momentarily troubled, "... but production and the experts and the other couples would be there a lot of the time, too. And whoever it is will be much more thoroughly vetted than any random I meet up with from Tinder or Bumble."

"I told you I am more than happy to misuse police resources and run background checks for you anytime, Lucy."

Lucy laughs and lets her head drop onto Jackson's shoulder for a moment. "And you are the absolute best for that. The absolute best for everything you've done for me."

"What are best friends for?" He lets out a deep exhale. "Lucy, if you're serious. If you really want to do this, I'll support you."

Lucy pauses thoughtfully. She's been busy trying to convince Jackson of all the reasons she should do this, but… does she really want to do this? But goodness, there's something inside of her, deep in her gut that is screaming at her to do this. And with one notable exception, her instincts, following her gut, have always served her well — personally and professionally.

She meets Jackson's eyes, "I think I do."

He grins at her, "I cannot believe I might be listening to you accusing some guy of only doing basic Caucasian sex on this very TV in just a matter of months. This is going to be epic. Let's get this process started — why don't you pull up the application? I'll give Sterling a call and see if he doesn't have a connection or two in casting that might be able to get you a bit of a leg up with this whole selection process."

It's a perfect night. His godson and his nephews are running around creating all sorts of chaos on the plaza in front of their table. A live band is set up on just the other side of the patio. The breeze is just enough to offset the first glimmers of summer heat in LA.

Perfect, if it wasn't for the fact that his own sister and supposed best friend hadn't just ambushed him once again with a blind date. It's become a maddeningly regular occurrence. He shows up to spend an afternoon with his godson and one of Angela's college roommates happens to stop by. He brings the cake and a gazillion balloons to his nephew's birthday party only to be introduced to Genny's new co-worker that just moved here from Buffalo. Backyard barbecues. School plays. Their bi-weekly dinner, which happens to be their current weapon of choice.

The pretty petite blonde stands up, grabbing her purse and popping the strap over her shoulder. Their entrees haven't even arrived yet. "You know — I just realized that I completely forgot… I have somewhere I need to be. Angela, I'll see you and Jack at drop off tomorrow." She gives an awkward wave and then hurries away from the table.

Angela is practically breathing fire. "Seriously, Tim? Did you really have to be so damn rude to Jack's preschool teacher? She is lovely. What is wrong with you?"

"What is wrong with you? I told you that I'm not interested in being set up, and yet, you two —" he shifts his glare back and forth between Genny and Angela, "don't seem to give a damn about what I actually want!"

Angela sighs, "Of course we care what you want, Tim. I just — I wish you'd at least try. I think you might have really liked her."

He snorts derisively.

"Tim, we care about you," Genny begins before pausing, seemingly debating her next words. "You've been so… different since everything with Isabel. You're so angry —"

"I'm not angry," Tim spits angrily. "And I don't want to keep having this conversation."

Angela arches an eyebrow, "Fine, if you don't want to be angry, how about bitter?"

Tim glowers at her and is about to tell Angela just exactly what she can do with her helpful suggestion when he sees Genny's face. Her eyes are filling with tears. Dammit.

She wipes at her cheek. "You're my big brother, Tim. And I don't want this for you. I want to see you happy again."

Tim sighs. He hates this. He hates seeing his friends so concerned, hates seeing Genny so sad. She's not a crier, so he knows that she is truly upset, truly worried about him.

But god… why can't they just leave him alone? Why can't they believe him when he says he's doing just fine?

Genny's and Angela's eyes meet across the table.

Genny sniffs and clears her throat, straightening in her seat. "Okay, if you don't want us to set you up anymore, then we won't —"

"Hallelujah," Tim deadpans.

Angela's husband, Wes, chuckles and shoots Tim an empathetic half smile across the table.

Genny rolls her eyes. "I wasn't finished, Tim. I have another proposition for you."


This time it's Genny's husband Mark that lets a laugh slip out, earning himself a steely glare.

"Ugh. Tim. You don't even know what it is yet."

"I don't need to know. If it involves you two conspiring together, then I already know I'm going to hate it."

"Fine then, I guess we'll see how things go next week." She turns to Angela, "Is that friend of yours from yogalates still single?"

"Mandy? The vegan? She is, actually, and, you know, I think she just got back from a mindfulness retreat in South America. I'm sure she'll have some amazing stories."

Tim turns his eyes up to the sky in search of divine intervention. When none arrives, he groans out loud. "Fine. What?"

Genny feigns confusion, "Hmm?"

"What's the proposition?"

Her face lights up.

"I haven't said yes yet, Genny. Calm down."

"Okay — do you remember that post I made about you on my Instagram? The one with you holding Nate?"

"Ohgoodlord," Tim buries his head in his hands. The post in question had been humiliating. Genny practically begging for someone to date her poor lonely recently divorced brother. See how good he is with children? He hadn't spoken to her for a solid month after he'd had the post shoved in his face during roll call one morning. The entire room rolling with laughter at the idea that hard-ass Sergeant Bradford couldn't get a date. There had been multiple write-ups for insubordination that day.

"Okay, so you do remember. Well, I got an interesting DM the other day. Now, Tim, you have to promise you'll hear me out."

Oh god, this is going to be really bad. He can just feel it.

"I got a message from a casting agent —"

"No. Nope. Not happening. I'm not going on The Bachelor."

Angela scoffs, "You are way too old for the Bachelor."

Tim sends a searing look in her direction.

"What?" she shrugs, "It's true." Her gaze shifts to something over Tim's shoulder. "Jack! NO! Don't eat that! Mommy says put that down!" She arches a disbelieving eyebrow in Wes' direction. "Are you seriously going to sit there and do nothing while your firstborn eats whatever the hell that thing is?"

Wes lumbers to his feet, "Of course not, darling."

"Anyway." Genny tries to bring the focus back to the topic at hand. "It's not for The Bachelor. It's for —"

"I don't care what it's for, Genny. I'm not going on reality TV. I can't believe you even thought I'd consider that."

"Tim, can you please get your head out of your ass and listen to what your sister has to say for like two minutes?"

Tim crosses his arms over his chest and sighs heavily, arching an eyebrow at Genny as an indication that he's "listening".

"So it's actually for a different type of show. It's more of a… social experiment than a reality tv dating show actually. There are these experts — they go through rigorous evaluations and interviews and testing — it's all very science-based."

"Uh huh. And who exactly are these experts?"

Genny and Angela share a glance. "Well, let's see… there's a psychologist. Apastorandasexologist," she finishes quickly.

"A what?"

Genny sighs, "A pastor and a sexologist."

Tim makes a disdainful sound. He is not impressed.

"Whatever — that's just who's on screen. There are tons of actual scientists involved in the process behind the scenes."

"So you go through this process, which sounds terrible by the way, and then what?"

"Then they see if they find someone who they think is a perfect match for you."

"And then?"

"And then you get married at first sight!" Genny smiles widely, making a happy spirit fingers gesture with her hands. "Ta da!"

Tim stares at her incredulously. "Have you lost your damn mind?"

"They actually have a really amazing success rate, Tim," Angela interjects. "It's 70%. That's crazy, right? Better than the success rate for regular marriages."

Tim scoffs, "That has to be bullshit. I'm sure these couples break up as soon as filming is over."

"No, Tim. They've been doing this for 15 years. That rate is for couples who are still together."

He frowns, momentarily caught off guard.

Genny, who seems to sense an opening, dives back in. "Anddd, it's only eight weeks, Tim. Eight weeks and you could meet the love of your life. What's the worst that could happen? It doesn't work out. You do some paperwork and move on. And Angela and I will never, ever attempt to set you up again. We promise."

"Do some paperwork? As in get a divorce?! This may shock you, but I actually don't have any interest in getting divorced twice before I'm forty, Genny. Not to mention — I already found the love of my life. And it didn't work out. In the worst possible way. They're not going to ever be able to find me anyone that could measure up to —" Tim's voice breaks, and he stops abruptly, shocked at the massive lump of emotion that's formed in his throat.

Genny and Angela are both staring at him now, and they just look so damn sad. Tim swallows and turns his head to stare out toward the plaza where his nephews are shrieking as they roll down a hill. Why are his goddamn eyes burning?

"It's been over two years, Tim," Angela says softly.

"It's only been six months," he retorts sharply.

"Six months since the divorce was final. But Tim, you and Isabel were over long before that. It's time to move on." It's Genny this time. Grinding her heel into his heart.

Tim sighs, pressing his palms against his eyes. He has moved on. Hasn't he? It's not like he hasn't seen or been with anyone since Isabel. Things just … didn't work out. It's not like falling in love just automatically happens. It's not a switch he can flip.

Seventy percent. Could this actually work? No. No way. This whole thing has to be complete bullshit. Getting married at first sight based on what some supposed "experts" think is insane.

There's a small pull of something that feels oddly like anticipation in his stomach. Which makes no sense. Because he has no interest in being married again or meeting his supposed "perfect match". Does he? He shakes himself.

"If I agree to this, it would only be to prove to you guys that it's bullshit. A farce. And if I'm right, which I absolutely will be, then all of this is done. I'm not just talking about the setups and the ambushes — I'm talking about all of it. No conversations about Isabel or the divorce or whether I'm happy or sad or bitter or angry. You let me live my life the way I see fit."

At this point, eight weeks to put an end to all of this judgment and meddling and hovering over his life seems like a small price to pay.

Angela and Genny stare at him in shock, and then they are turning to look at each other. A weird high pitched squealing noise erupts from their side of the table before they say in unison, "Deal!"

Fuck. The wave of regret sweeping through his body is swift. What the hell has he just agreed to?