Sneak Peeks

Ready. Set. Faux. Read a Sneak Peek from The (Fake) Dating Game!


Ready. Set. Faux. Read a Sneak Peek from The (Fake) Dating Game!

Ready. Set. Faux.

Holden James picked the worst time to have a meltdown. His chance to audition for his favourite game show, Madcap Market, should have been a moment of triumph — a glorious, loving homage to his adored mum, who died six years ago. Instead, he’s destroying the minibar in a grim Los Angeles hotel room…recently dumped, partnerless and sliding into misery.

But at least the hotel service is sublime. It even comes with an unfairly fit and sexy (smart-ass) concierge who arrives at the door with pizza, Monopoly and deliciously distracting forearms.

All Holden knows about Leo Min is that he’s beautiful, unexpectedly sympathetic, and the chemistry between them is beyond. Maybe it’s even enough to convince everyone, including the show’s casting directors, that they’re a real couple. All they’d have to do is crush the competition, win the huge cash prize, and all of Holden’s problems — his broken heart, his buried grief, his complete lack of money and direction — will be fixed.

Of course, reality doesn’t quite work out that way. But love is an entirely different game…

Amber bulbs dangle on white strings above our heads, making everyone in the restaurant look like a cartoon character with a bright idea. I, however, feel like an absolute fool for coming here tonight.

It’s crowded, loud, and overpriced. Three things Buckley hates.

Buckley, my long-term boyfriend and college sweetheart, sits across from me looking pensive in a brand-new shirt, a crisp oak color, that’s too snug around the collar. I bought it for him this afternoon as a surprise from the athleisure boutique I work at.

I always forget Buckley’s neck size. Shoe size: ten and a half. Pant size: 30×32. Dick size…a gentleman never tells. But, somehow, I always screw up his neck size. It’s wider than the rest of his parts.

(No, I’m not talking about that part, which has plenty of girth, thank you very much.)

(I, Holden James, never said I was a gentleman.)

When he got home from work at the accounting firm, I had this fresh outfit laid out on the bed for him, flashed him a pair of train tickets, and told him we were having dinner in Manhattan tonight.

If Buckley had it his way, we’d never leave our town. It has a Whole Foods! We’re within driving distance of two IKEAs! Both of which we can only shop at because he brings home the bacon, and by bacon, I do mean the organic smoked turkey bacon I attempt to fry on Sunday mornings while he sleeps. Unimaginably, I always set off the smoke detectors, and he wakes up to open all the windows, reasonably grumpy.

But tonight, he didn’t protest the trek into the city because I told him it was my treat.

Though, this treat turned out to be more of a trick.

Gwendolyn, my boss and the woman who owns the boutique I work at, recommended this place. “It’s divine,” she’d said, while watching me fold ugly pairs of patterned leggings for the fashionably indiscriminate who frequent Fab Fitness Flair. (Try saying that five times fast.)

The Yelp listing made this restaurant seem like a lavish, dimly lit dining establishment with olive accent colors and old-world charms. A good place for important conversations like the one I’m hoping to have with Buckley tonight.

“Your boyfriend will love it,” Gwendolyn had reassured me when I clocked out this afternoon.

Now here we are and, judging by the disgruntled look on Buckley’s face, he is not loving it. He’s the embodiment of the anti-McDonald’s slogan right now.

Not that I blame him.

Our light wood table is smashed up against our neighbor’s—a short, bald agent talking career trajectory with a young blonde. She’s probably a singer judging by her wacky outfit, a neon bucket hat and Edward Scissorhands–esque nails. How she picks up her wineglass is above and beyond me. I watch in abject horror, hoping she doesn’t spill the dry red all over her white crop top.

I’m fixating on the excess of stimuli around me because I’m more nervous than I’ve ever been before. A big question hovers just behind my lips. I’m holding it back until the right moment. During dessert, probably. Right after Buckley’s first bite of cake. I’m trying to sweeten him up so he’s sure to say yes when I pop the question.

The plates we’ve been served so far were small. Each tasting has been just that—a bite of bliss that escaped my palate before it even settled. The pear salad was exquisite with a refreshing pink dressing—pomegranate, maybe?—that I was afraid to ask the fussy waiter about since he was already annoyed with us for our (my) stinginess.

We’ve ordered the cheapest drinks and the least expensive plates because the boutique doesn’t pay me that well, and my side hustle of teaching Cardio Dance Fit classes isn’t much better. This outing tonight is being bankrolled by a Capital One credit card limit I have no idea how I got approved for.

“Thank you for coming here tonight,” I say to Buckley, sounding small. My heart is skittish. Here’s the only man I’ve ever loved sitting across from me, the man I live with, and despite the small distance of white tablecloth between us, it feels like I’m shouting at him from the other side of the world given the noise around us and the chasm of emotions I’m afraid to fall into. “I know it took a lot for you to get off from work early since you’re still the new guy and, yeah, it means a lot to me.”

“Sure, Holden,” he says, and my chest contracts.

He never calls me Holden. Since forever, he’s called me H.

One night, when he was really drunk, not long after we first met, he went on a rant at an ABC—anything but clothes—party about how Holden has no immediate nicknames. “Hole?” he goofed. “We can’t call you hole!” The room lit up with laughter from every corner, and even though it was at my expense, I didn’t care. His attention had that spectacular effect on me. “I’ll call you H. Short, simple, eighth letter of the alphabet. H is like a house, dependable and sturdy, right? Like, two I’s connected together.”

Then, when we started dating, he told me H was more like a home, still dependable, still sturdy, but he and I were the two I’s and the line connecting them was our love.

It was over-the-top, but I rolled with it, enjoying that I could be someone worthy of romantic words, no matter how cheesy. For once, I didn’t feel reduced to the-guy-whose-mom-died at the end of high school.

“I bet you’re wondering why I chose to trek all the way out here tonight.” I muster up a prizewinning smile, shucking the bad memories I almost let infiltrate our night. I’ve got to sell this.

The waiter, a handsome guy with piercing hazel eyes, comes by with our entrées, interrupting my flow. There are approximately four truffle raviolis on a large pewter plate topped with green leaves and a measly amount of sauce. I already know I’m going to be starving when we leave. As if my stomach weren’t already in nauseated knots.

“Thank you,” Buckley says almost too congenially to the waiter. His eyes drift down the waiter’s ass as he walks away. I normally wouldn’t mind Buckley checking out another man. Looking is fine. Touching, within the express bounds of our open relationship, is fine, too. But to do it so brazenly in front of me when I’m obviously trying to talk to him about something significant is more than grating.

“I didn’t really give tonight a lot of thought,” Buckley says when he finally tears his eyes away and picks up his utensils.

“Well, it’s actually because…” I sip my watered-down cocktail to steel my nerves. “There’s something I wanted to ask you. Something important.”

It might be the swaying lights, but I think I spot a bead of sweat trickling down the side of Buckley’s face.

“Uhhhh, okaaaaaaay.” Buckley’s eyes dance away from me.

“Are you all right?” I ask, handing him my napkin because he is already sopping. He blots at his suddenly shiny nose.

“Did it get hot in here?” he asks, fanning himself with his hand.

The agent from the neighboring table leans over: “I’ve been asking myself the same thing.” But the agent looks like he’s a smarmy ball of sweat all the time, so I don’t consider his opinion relevant.

“Do you think it’s something you ate?” I try to flag down the waiter so we can see a list of ingredients. Buckley doesn’t have any known food allergies, but of course, tonight of all nights, he might as well go into anaphylaxis. I bring the bad luck with me wherever I go it seems.

“No.” He glugs back his water. “No, I’m fine.” The water dribbles down his chin and onto his lap. My worry mounts.

I haven’t seen him this nervous since the day he asked me out. We were at an amusement park, we’d just stepped off a roller coaster, and the exhilaration of the ride mixed with the worry about my answer caused him to faint. In the nurse’s station, mostly filled with children who ate too much cotton candy and retched on the Tilt-A-Whirl, he grabbed my hand like a patient on their death bed and asked, “Will you go out with me?”

He was so pale and clammy, yet still so sweetly beautiful. I sighed and said, “Of course. You didn’t need to do all this to guilt me into it. I would’ve said yes no matter what.”

Once again, over-the-top, but we laughed for a good five minutes. It felt good—better than crying—so I decided it was right.

“Go on,” he says, roping me back into the moment. A moment I’d honestly like to forget about at this point. None of this is what I planned for, and now I’m worried this whole night has been ruined beyond repair.

“Really? I think we should see what was in the salad. Maybe it was the dressing? You don’t normally eat pomegranates. Was that even pomegranate I was tasting?” I’m half stalling, half trying to make sure he’s okay.

“No, I’m fine,” Buckley snaps. Snapping seems to be his favorite way to speak to me these days. When did that start? And now that I think of it, why did I assume this was a good idea in the first place?

Oh, right. Because of what’s currently hidden in my pocket.

“If you’re sure,” I say, fortifying myself once more. I clear my throat. “I brought you out here so I could ask you to be my—”

“Don’t propose to me,” he whispers quickly with deadly seriousness.

“Huh?” His words bounce around inside my head like a pinball, launched and looping.

“Don’t propose to me.” He looks like he’s about to cry. His eyes dart around the restaurant making sure nobody is peering at us. I haven’t just lost the thread of this conversation. The whole thing has unraveled like a Forever 21 scarf at this point. “I won’t say yes if you do.”

Stunned laughter bursts out of me when his words decode themselves. Heads turn in our direction. Even the agent is put off by my performance, and he seems like he’d represent just about anyone. I don’t mean to make a show of myself but this is too rich. When I calm down enough to speak, I say, “I wasn’t going to propose to you.”

“You weren’t?” he asks. He appears almost embarrassed—for his assumption or by me? I can’t tell. “Then what was all that about?”

“I wanted you to audition for Madcap Market with me.”

Other people love Wheel of Fortune or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Some worship at the altar of Jeopardy! Thanks to my late mom, I grew up grinning ear to ear while watching teams of two race down the aisles of a fake grocery store looking for specific products and trying not to fall into waiting pools of Reddi-Wip or aged barrels of baked beans. It’s slapstick at its finest. God Bless America.

“When I was reminded on Instagram about their open casting calls for the show, I knew we needed to be on it,” I tell him, excitement cranking through me. I conveniently leave out the part that I had seen the post while drinking. I don’t know what it is about spiked seltzers, but they always lead to financially unwise decisions.

From my pocket, I pull out two plane tickets to Los Angeles that I impulse bought courtesy of black cherry White Claw.

“What?” Buckley mumbles, looking over the tickets I’ve handed him.

“It’s Madcap Market,” I say. “We leave four weeks from today!”

My heart drops another inch into my stomach for every silent second that goes by. For every new crease across Buckley’s forehead and beside his frowning mouth.

“You and that show.” Buckley shakes his head in visible disbelief. “It’s an unhealthy obsession.”

This is far from the reaction I was hoping for. It’s been forever since our last vacation. Dovetailing a TV game show into one seemed like a good idea. Or, at least, not an awful one. I blink back my panic and immediate hurt. “Obsession? You know what Madcap Market meant to me and…” My sentence trails off as my lip quivers. I can’t spit out my mom no matter how hard I try.

“It’s been six years, Holden,” he says as if grief, like the Greek yogurt he buys in bulk from Whole Foods, has an expiration date.

My center of gravity is out of sorts when I ask, “What is that supposed to mean?”

“You’ve got to move on already, Holden. It’s not healthy,” he says, completely lacking sympathy and maybe showing me his true colors. I didn’t expect them to be so bleak and off-putting. “And, frankly, neither is that show. It’s everything that’s wrong with American TV.”

My sadness mutates into anger because anger is far easier to express and less quicksandy. “Just because I don’t binge the BBC every free-bloody-wanking-minute I have doesn’t mean I have poor taste.” I don’t care about magical doctors or abbeys or emotionally distressed women who hit on hot priests! I don’t watch Madcap Market to care. I watch it to de-stress, to enjoy, to forget. All the things I’ve been trying and failing to do since Mom passed away from a freak blood clot after she beat cancer. A shock that tore my tiny family apart right before I graduated high school and left home for the first time in my life for college.

There’s this supercharged second where the agent leans over and whispers, “Are you two filming test footage for a reality series? Because, if so, this stuff is really juicy. This is my card and—”

“Not now!” I swat at his hand and the business card goes flying, landing in a nearby soup bowl, soaking up bloodred broth. “Why do you think you’re better than me just because you have a boring office job and a snobbish taste in TV?”

His nostrils flair like a dragon’s in one of his ridiculous fantasy shows. “Because, Holden, getting your shit together is not as hard as you so claim it to be. It’s called being an adult. How about you try it sometime?”

“Try it? I live it. I breathe it. I am it! What are you even talking about? I have two jobs. I pay half the rent.” I struggle to do it, but I don’t voice that part. After Mom died and we became a one-income household, I had to take out a mountain of student loans to still go to my dream school, which didn’t even land me a good job. A waste of time and funds. I’d say it was worth it solely for my relationship with Buckley, but his glare reads like a countdown clock—detonation imminent.

“You don’t pay half the rent,” Buckley says gravely.

I rock back in my seat. “Yes, I do. Where else is my money transfer going every month if not to our rent?” I ask. We’re amassing more attention the longer this spat goes on. Nobody is even tasting their tastings. Their mouths are too busy hanging open as they try not to stare.

“You pay a quarter of our rent,” he whispers. “You pay a quarter of our rent, and I pay the rest. How else did you think we afforded such a nice place?”

My neck grows hot. “What? Since when? When we signed the lease, you told me what the rent was and we agreed that we’d each pay half.” I knew it would stretch my bank account thin, but I was young and “in love” and desperate not to move in with Dad lest I be reminded of Mom’s absence every time we sat down to a meal. Desperate to make this—with Buckley—work.

Even if, in the back of my mind, I know I rushed into it and then contorted myself into a pretzel at his every whim so he couldn’t see my mess or my pain.

“I lied! I made a sacrifice. Like an adult. I wanted to live there and, at the time, I wanted to live there with you.”

“At the time?” I ask, my voice breaking, reduced to a deflating tube man outside a car dealership at the end of a shitty sales day. Nothing but a cheap heap of synthetic fabric flattened to the pavement.

“I’ve been trying to tell you.” He wrings his wet napkin.

I blink back at him, not computing this, wondering how one evening can fly so far off the rails. “Been trying to tell me what?”

“That—” he looks away “—I don’t think this is working anymore.”

His words pin me to the chair. “What are you talking about?” I’m hoping the question dulls the sharpness in his voice. That his answer is: this date isn’t working for him or our apartment isn’t working for him, not…

“I’m talking about us. I don’t think we’re working anymore.” His brown eyes are a mudslide after a rainstorm. “I want to break up, and I want you to move out.”

Words drain out of my mind; blood drains out of my face. “You don’t mean that.” He can’t mean that. People don’t just decide to unlove you, do they? We don’t live in a world cruel enough to take away moms too young and ruin love this suddenly, right?

“I do mean that,” he says in a monotone. “I’m sorry, Holden.” Abruptly, he stands, places his napkin on the table and grabs his coat from the back of the chair. I’m tempted to snatch the fluttering sleeve, tug it back, and beg him to stay, even if I sort of hate him right now.

Instead, as he’s walking off, some demonic spirit possesses my body and throws my anger into the spotlight. I stand and yell after him, “You’re a coward! You’re selfish! Just because you have a full-time job, and health insurance, and can pay three-fourths of the rent on an apartment I don’t even like doesn’t mean you’re better than me! You would’ve held me back anyway!”

Turning around, his visage is twisted and devilish. He says through gritted teeth, “I would’ve held you back?”

I cough into my hand, not having expected a response. “Yeah, I never could’ve won the show with you. You’re all work and no play. I don’t need you.”

He laughs an angry, watery laugh. “Okay, Holden. We’ll see about that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” He walks away, not even flinching at the booming sound of my voice. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

I’m left answerless, with a broken heart and a massive bill.

On Sale: 23/01/2024

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