A fresh, fun contemporary rom-com from debut author Elle Gonzalez Rose, about an aspiring artist who agrees to fake date one of his family’s longtime enemies in the hopes of gathering intel good enough to take down their rivals once and for all.
Devin Baez is ready for a relaxing winter break at Lake Andreas. That is, until he runs into his obnoxious next-door neighbors the Seo-Cookes, undefeated champions of the lake’s annual Winter Games. In the hope of finally taking down these long-time rivals, the Baezes offer up their beloved cabin in a bet. Reckless? Definitely.
So when annoyingly handsome Julian Seo-Cooke finds himself in need of a fake boyfriend, Devin sees an opportunity to get behind enemy lines and prove the family plays dirty.
As long as Devin and Julian’s families are at war, there’s only room for loathing between them. Which is a problem because, for Devin, this faux game of love is feeling very real.
An Excerpt fromCaught in a Bad Fauxmance
Thirty minutes in the backseat together and my sister wants to kill me--a new record.
“Devin.” Maya snaps her manicured fingers in my face when I ignore her. “Move over.”
It’s the third time she’s made that demand since we piled into the car. Any other day I would pack up my drawing tablet and laptop and give her free rein over the backseat, but I’m holding my ground this time.
I push her hand away. “No, I’m working.”
“No, you’re not,” she scoffs. “You’ve been looking at your phone this whole time. Your tablet isn’t even on.”
Up in the peaceful driver’s seat, Dad sighs while Andy tries and fails to hold back a snort. We should’ve seen this coming when we let Andy call shotgun. It made sense at the time--shoving our six-foot-three stepbrother into the cramped backseat of our Honda Civic wouldn’t have been fair--but Maya hates long drives, and my tablet takes up all the extra leg space. It was a recipe for disaster.
“I’m doing research,” I reply indignantly.
I turn my attention back to the profile I was scouring, only for Maya to snatch the phone out of my hand. She tucks it right into the one place she knows I’m not willing to go: her bra. “Social media stalking your classmates doesn’t count as research.”
Scoping out the competition absolutely counts as research. “Yes, it does.”
She gives me a deadpan look.
Okay fine, it doesn’t.
Not that I’d ever admit it to her, but Maya’s right. If I want any chance of not shooting my barely existent art career in the foot, I should be working on my application for the Cardarelli mentorship. Every spring semester, one CalArts freshman is whisked away to undergrad stardom by Professor Lila Cardarelli, an animator with so many accolades under her belt she needs a separate Wikipedia page to list them all.
Professor Cardarelli’s protégés are basically gods, according to my roommate, my advisor, and just about everyone else at CalArts. You give up any semblance of free time in exchange for shadowing one of the most iconic names in animation. Internships at Pixar and Disney are essentially guaranteed once you’ve got a recommendation letter from Lila Cardarelli, who has the Disney family on speed dial. No one has any clue how Cardarelli picks her mentees, but it’s the same application every year. Standard background information, and one enormously daunting assignment: attach one piece that you feel best expresses who you are as an artist. Which sounds easy enough, except I barely have any idea who I am as a person, let alone an artist.
My first semester of almost-adulthood was less than stellar. Being surrounded by people who have been creating since they could hold a pencil and can produce gallery-worthy art in their sleep isn’t exactly encouraging when you can barely grasp the basics of color theory. Especially when you’re like me, someone who didn’t consider animation as a profession until their junior year of high school. Six months ago, I thought I’d be in my element--living the cool, aloof LA art school kid life I’d seen in movies. Instead, I spent the past four months hardly ever leaving my dorm room just so I could keep up with all the homework. I’ve been in the land of eternal sunshine for three months and I’m even paler than when I arrived, and I’ve spent more time with the vending machine on my floor than my roommate.
So, yeah, I could really use a win right now.
The application isn’t actually due until the first day of spring semester, and while procrastination has never done me any favors, I can’t focus on productivity when my innocent phone is being held captive in my sister’s gross, sweaty clutches.
“C’mon, give it back,” I whine, nudging my knee against Maya’s.
“Nope.” She smacks her bubblegum and waves a finger at my tablet. “Pack it up or get drawing.”
I can explain to her for the hundredth time that that’s not how my artistic process works, or I can play dirty.
“Dad, Maya stole my phone.”
“Give your brother his phone back,” Dad mumbles, squinting at a sign about road closures.
Maya’s glare would turn me to stone if I wasn’t so used to being on the receiving end of her rage. Whoever said twins have a special psychic bond lied. The last time Maya and I were on the same page was when we sent Mami into labor ten weeks before our due date. We’ve been menaces since the day we were born.
We stare each other down, unblinking and unrelenting, until she lunges at me. On instinct, I curl around my tablet, protecting it from her wrath. She goes for the cord connecting it to my laptop instead, ready to yank it free, when Dad springs into action.
“Hey!” he shouts, startling all of us, even Andy, into total silence. “Watch it around the tablet,” he warns, focusing back on the road once Maya retreats to her side of the car.
She begrudgingly hands me back my phone, sticking her tongue out at Dad when he’s distracted by a Prius that gets too close to us. “Sometimes I think you love that thing more than you love either of us.”
“With how much I paid for it, yes, I do,” Dad replies.
Guilt settles too comfortably in the pit of my stomach. It’s no secret that my tablet’s price tag was more than we should’ve spent, but Dad had insisted we splurge on the CalArts recommended model instead of the used three-generations-old one I’d found on eBay. It was for a special occasion--an eighteenth birthday and “congrats on getting into art school” gift rolled into one--but bills like ours don’t leave room for five-hundred-dollar special occasions, as Maya, the golden child who abandoned her grand plan to move to New York and study cosmetology for the more affordable option of staying home and commuting to Florida State, loves to remind me.
Case in point: this entire trip. We haven’t been to our cabin in Lake Andreas for four years, but Dad begrudgingly kept up with the payments for the sake of nostalgia. Swinging the extra couple hundred bucks a month felt worthwhile when there was still a slim chance we’d spend another summer or winter break at the lake. Especially after we gave up our childhood home to find a place big enough for Andy and his mom, Isabel, to move in last year.
With two college tuitions, a new mortgage, and unpaid medical bills that have been sitting on the kitchen counter for what feels like eons to keep up with, nostalgia doesn’t make the cut anymore. As much as it might suck, avoiding lifelong debt outweighs sentimentality.
That’s the part none of the therapists warned us about--grief is hell on your bank account.
Not that I’m not grateful for our “special occasions.” The tablet makes me feel more like a serious artist than the now-infected nose ring I let my roommate Marcus talk me into because “all artists have cool piercings.” And at least we’re getting a chance to say goodbye to the cabin. Christmases since our last trip to Lake Andreas have been . . . weird. We rarely even acknowledge holidays anymore. Christmas is just a day. Sometimes we sit around an undecorated pine tree in the living room and exchange gifts, but the first year we didn’t even do that. It must be odd for Andy and Isabel, walking into a family that acts like one of the biggest holidays in the world doesn’t exist.
Which is why I pinched myself when Dad suggested this trip in the first place. He always made vague promises that next year we’d do something different, and now he’s finally delivering. One last nostalgic, and very strictly budgeted, Christmas in Lake Andreas before our cabin heads onto the market.
With my phone back in my pocket and Maya in full-on sulking mode, I finally return to my tablet. Instead of doing work like I promised myself, I let my gaze wander over to her when I’m sure she’s not looking.
She’s been on edge since I came home two days ago. Not that she’s usually a happy-go-lucky person--snark has always been her brand--but she’s especially huffy lately. Every time I deign to mention any of the three Cs--California, CalArts, or Cardarelli--she either scoffs, rolls her eyes, or leaves the room when we don’t switch to a new topic. Yesterday she snapped at me for taking too long to get a glass of water. Maya’s had problems with controlling her anger since we were old enough to talk, and I’m still not able to tell whether she’s mad at me, our family, or the world at large. But I do know that the Devin Báez Reunion Tour is going terribly so far.
A four-hour road trip no longer feels like the right place to work on finding who I am as an artist. The application isn’t due for another month, and not pissing off my sister is higher priority right now. Especially if I want to make it back to CalArts with all of my limbs, and electronics, intact.
Once my tablet is tucked away, Maya stretches herself out like a cat in the sun. She doesn’t grace me with a smile or even the basic decency of eye contact, but her shoulders slacken, and her frown softens. That’s Maya for “thank you.”
Three hours and two bathroom breaks later, Dad takes the exit for Lake Andreas and lowers the volume on his trusty road trip mixtape. “Nearly there,” he says, and rolls down our windows.
Andy leaps up, hanging his head out of his window like a golden retriever. I unbuckle my seat belt when Dad isn’t looking, sliding in beside Maya to peek at the familiar welcome sign.
LAKE ANDREAS: THE HAPPIEST PLACE IN FLORIDA
The sign is frayed and has yellowed at the edges, but it warms my jaded little heart.
The car slows down as highways turn into one-way streets, giving us time to take in the scenery. Oak trees sprawl as far as the eye can see, shielding the rustic wooden cabins along the side of the street from view. Tire swings and Little Free Libraries on every corner. Bikes and paddleboards abandoned on front lawns and the smell of saltwater and sunscreen in the air.
I lean out my window as we pull onto the main strip, ready to ooh and aah over all the places Maya and I would terrorize as kids, except . . .
Well, not all of them. The deli that gave me and Dad food poisoning is still around. The shops on Fulton Drive are still painted pastel pinks, blues, and greens, but their windows are shuttered and doors barred, lining the street like rotten gumdrops. The entire block, like the welcome sign, feels frayed and yellowed at the edges. The abandoned shops haven’t even been replaced by a Starbucks or a Chipotle, or one of those business-casual places that charge $16 for salad. They’re just empty. Sad, forgotten shells of a town that once meant so much to us.
“Huh,” Maya murmurs as Dad parks in front of what was once a pretty decent Thai restaurant. “Was the lake always this depressing?”
Dad takes off his Florida State cap, his hair in sweaty disarray. “I don’t think so.”
“Me neither,” I reply. I know kids see the world through rose-tinted glasses and all that jazz, but this is definitely not our Lake Andreas. At least not the one we remember. Even if my memories are kinder than reality, there’s no way Mami would’ve let us spend our Christmases in a ghost town every year when we could’ve skipped the four-hour drive from Tallahassee and stayed home.
“Probably just an off year.” Dad slips his cap back on and turns off the car, gesturing for us to follow him as he steps out.
Most of our favorite places have bit the dust. The Winter Wonderland miniature village--complete with fake snow and a Ferris wheel made of chocolate--in the front window of the candy store has been replaced with a foreclosure notice and cobwebs. Our favorite bakery, Loafin’ Around, looks like it’s been boarded up for months. A hunger pang rips through my empty stomach at the thought of never having their sundried tomato and rosemary focaccia again.
Sam’s Superior Souvenirs is hanging in, though. And so are their signature I GOT CRABS IN LAKE ANDREAS shirts. Wonderful.
The streets somehow feel emptier than they look, with only the distant sound of seagulls and the echo of our footsteps for company. The kind of empty that feels ominous even in broad daylight. I stick close to Maya as Dad leads us toward the grocery store at the end of the block.
“Watch it,” she hisses when I accidentally step on the back of her chancla. Forget playing nice--if an ax murderer decides to come after us, I’m using her as a shield.
I fall back, lingering beside Andy instead. He’s a foot taller and lifts weights heavier than me during football practice. No way I can force him into being my unwilling shield. So, I guess this is the end of me. Can’t say this is how I thought I’d go.
We make it to the grocery store without coming across any other signs of life. Not even the usual swarm of blood-hungry mosquitoes. I’m half expecting the store to be abandoned, but when the bell over the door announces our arrival, we’re greeted by a familiar face.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Old Bob says with a slap to his knee.
Well, I’ll be damned. The candy shop didn’t survive, but Old Bob did.
It’s a relief, really. Old Bob is a Lake Andreas staple, welcoming families with open arms and hard candy year after year. Once upon a time, he’d been the mayor of this place, winning two consecutive landslide elections before passing the mayoral torch to his wife, Janine, and opening up the General Store. He’s the kind of person who always remembered our birthdays and what sports we were into and whether we preferred soft serve or Popsicles. And one of the few locals who actually looked forward to visitors like us coming around to wreak havoc on their usually quiet community, never minding the extra noise and bigger crowds. He always said folks like us kept life at the lake exciting.
“Tony Báez, come ’ere you bastard.” It’s not until he’s pulling Dad in for a hug that I remember we don’t actually know Old Bob’s real name. It had been a joke at the time, but it suits him. He looks like a Bob, and he is old. Five-year-old Devin and Maya were on to something.