Go Fake Yourself
A fake relationship romantic comedy
Release Date TBD
Note: The text below is an unedited first draft! It may contain errors and is subject to change in the final published version.
01. Weirdest. Interview. Ever.
“Well, now that we’ve gotten the boring stuff out of the way, why don’t you tell me about your dating history?”
Despite its unusual nature, so far this job interview seems to be going well. I’m pleased with my answers to the expected questions about my education and past employment—which she apparently classifies as the “boring stuff”—and I’d just started to relax a bit.
That relaxation just went right out the window. Surely, I misheard her.
“Pardon me, ma’am, but would you repeat the question?” I try to keep my voice polite and respectful to mask any sign of nerves or incredulity. She doesn’t appear annoyed, which I take as a sign that I’ve succeeded. In fact, she smiles at me, flashing white teeth as the skin bracketing her pale blue eyes crinkles. The lines there hint at the years of seniority she has on me, and suggest she spent them smiling.
“I want to hear all about your past relationships. All romantic experiences count, from formal partners to casual sexual encounters.”
Oh. Well, that clarifies everything and tells me nothing.
What the heck kind of job interview is this?
I’ve yet to gather any hint of the answer to that, today’s million dollar question. Okay, probably not a million dollars, but Jamie assured me this job pays well, so I’m at least hoping for enough dollars to pay next month’s rent. A little extra for things like food and paying off some of my credit card debt would be great, too. That would go a long way in justifying my decision to even show up to what is essentially a blind date in search of mysterious employment.
As a general rule, I wouldn’t call myself a risk-taker. The sum of my life choices to date don’t paint a picture colored with adventure or spontaneity, the kinds of characteristics you might expect from someone in my current situation. So how did I get here? Call it rock bottom. Call it the proverbial desperate measure born from desperate times. Call it a quarter-life crisis triggered by my impending twenty-fifth birthday. I’d say it was likely a combination of all of the above that drove me to call my friend Jamie to help find me a job.
Yep, I’m here to interview for a job I know absolutely nothing about. I didn’t even know who I’d be interviewing with until I showed up twenty minutes ago.
Jamie works at a head-hunting firm of sorts, though it’s nothing you’ll find with a simple Google search. They cater to the rich and famous, elite clientele who value discretion and can pay handsomely for it. There’s a multi-step blind screening process during which Jamie and her coworkers vet potential candidates before anyone even makes it to an actual interview. Before all of that, I had to sign a legal non-disclosure agreement. The whole thing is very cloak and dagger and a little over the top, though I can respect why certain people might want their business kept private.
“Let’s begin with high school and earlier. Who was your first crush?” my interviewer prompts kindly, a sign that I’ve been silent too long.
Given the nature of the company Jamie works for and the three secrecy-bound pre-screenings I had to go through before making it to this interview, I knew I might meet a celebrity today. I’ve read books that start a little like this, an anonymous job opportunity that ends up with the main character working as the personal assistant of a famous football player or running social media for a world renowned rock band. Of course, they’re romance novels so said heroine and the sexy famous person inevitably end up falling in love with each other and living happily ever after. I don’t have any illusions about that sort of thing. I’m just saying, if I ended up with a job where I could be in the same room as Chris Evans or Harry Styles, you wouldn’t hear me complaining.
I did my best to mentally prepare for the possibilities, and thought I was ready. Then, about fifteen minutes ago, I walked into this cozy home office where the woman seated at the desk before me introduced herself as Victoria Trulette.
I’m definitely not ready.
You’re talking to Victoria-freaking-Trulette right now!
I mean, I’ve heard of this woman. Everyone has heard of her! I’ve even read some of her books.
Don’t freak out. Be calm, be cool. So she’s a celebrity. No big deal.
Yeah, I’m not even convincing myself. It is so a big deal.
Of all the possible scenarios I imagined encountering today, nothing could have prepared me for the humiliation of confessing my pathetically limited dating history and sexual experience to an international bestselling romance author. Romance. She doesn’t write clean, chaste, “love on the prairie” kinds of romance, either. I still remember how equally intrigued and traumatized I was back in high school when I read my first Victoria Trulette book (part of that trauma due to having found the paperback on my mom’s bookshelves and knowing she’d read all those sex scenes, too.)
Where’s a hungry black hole when a girl needs one? About now I’d be willing to let that thing swallow me right up. Anything to get me out of this.
With every word out of my mouth, I can feel my face heating, until I’m certain my cheeks are redder than they’ve ever been before. I ineffectually cover them with my palms, trying to cool the burn of humiliation.
Victoria Trulette’s smile stretches across her entire face, and she claps. Literally claps, with glee. “Oh, she blushes! That’s wonderful. Readers really eat that up in a protagonist.”
What the what? Weirdest. Interview. Ever.
“Are you should you don’t want a copy of my resume? I printed one out for you.” I produce it from my bag in a desperate attempt to redirect this interview into more comfortable territory. The bracelets stacked along her wrist make a jingling sound with her dismissive wave.
“Oh, no. I’ve already looked at that. The agency sent it over a few days ago with your background check. As perhaps you’ve already intuited, this job is of an unusual nature and I need to learn more about you and your characteristics than can be plumbed from a list of academic achievements and employment history. So tell me, Audrey Mitchell, do you believe in love?”
I am once again struck dumb and I’m sure my eyes are doing a solid impression of a deer in headlights right now. My mind races with a discordant array of thoughts.
This interview is going to be the death of me.
Did she say background check?
What am I doing here?
DO I believe in love?
I don’t even know if I have an answer to that. As I try to formulate words, Victoria waits patiently, those astute pale blue eyes never leaving my face. I wonder what she sees there? She has remained nothing but warm throughout this whole encounter, but there’s no way she’s not disappointed in me. I’ve only ever had one boyfriend, for goodness sake! The same boyfriend who took my virginity and remains my sole sexual partner. Something Victoria now knows. She also knows I haven’t done much to change that situation in the nearly three years since we broke up. I imagine whatever this job is, Victoria must be looking for someone with more worldliness. Someone like the characters in her books—sexy and flirty and interesting. I suppose I just have to grit my teeth and ride this interview out to the end, although I’m now convinced the job is a lost cause.
“I think so,” I finally answer.
“You’re not sure?” Rather than appearing upset or confused by my answer, Victoria looks inexplicably pleased.
I shrug. Or at least, I lift my shoulders as much as I can manage under the crushing weight of her intense gaze.
“I guess I’ve always wanted to believe in love, but it’s hard to believe in something you’ve never really seen for yourself. I guess for me love is a really abstract thing and when I try to picture it in my head all I see are scenes from movies and plot lines from books. My mom doesn’t really date and I’ve certainly never been in love myself. And it’s not like any of my friends have wild successes in that area. I mean, my best friend is crazy in love with a guy right now she actually moved to Ireland to be with him a few months back and they seem happy I guess. But I guess it’s hard for me to believe that will last and they’ll be together forever the way I know she thinks they will. Promising to feel the same thing forever seems kind of crazy, you know? Maybe I’m just too cynical to believe in love?”
Great, now I’ve gotten carried away and rambled like a crazy person. To Victoria Trulette.
Dear black hole, please hurry up.
Victoria seems to give my answer some thought before speaking. “You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. Many people I run into are either wild romantics who are looking for the fairytale or people who have been scorned in one way or another and blocked their hearts off, steered all the way to the other ends of the spectrum where they not only don’t believe in love but choose to vilify it. I don’t feel that vehemence one way or another from you. It’s healthy. That kind of balance is practical and reasonable. Of course,” she pauses and smirks a little bit and I wonder what tales she’s concocting in that mind that’s created some of contemporary fiction’s best romances, “Love is neither practical nor reasonable. But I’m sure you’ll have something very different to say on the matter once you’ve experienced it firsthand.”
I hold my tongue to keep from voicing my skepticism that I’ll ever experience love myself. I’m granted a welcome reprieve when two soft knocks sound at the door, followed by the arrival of Victoria’s assistant, the same girl who greeted me and led me to Victoria’s office earlier.
“Victoria, I’m so sorry to bother you, but there’s a call from Shelly and she says it’s urgent.”
“My agent,” Victoria explains to me with a shrug and a look that seems to say, You know how it is… I nod even though I absolutely do not know what it’s like to be a famous author with an agent. “I’ll be right back.”
She ducks out of the office. Before shutting the door behind them, her assistant (who I now recall introduced herself as Matilda) leans in and gives me a wink that my brain decides to classify as conspiratorial. Of course, there’s every possibility that, rather than trying to impart cheeky camaraderie, Matilda is mocking me, but I prefer to imagine she likes me and is trying to say she’s rooting for me to get the job. About which I still know absolutely nothing!
Once alone in Victoria’s office, I try to take advantage of the respite to collect myself. Instead of reliving every mortifying detail of the interview thus far, I focus on my surroundings. Truly, it’s a miracle I haven’t made a complete and total fool of myself in this interview—meeting face to face with a world famous author and doing it inside one of the historic Beacon Hill brownstones I’ve only ever admired from afar as I walked past. It’s part of a row of perfect red brick buildings with black wrought iron railings framing the front steps, just like the ones in the photographs on Boston postcards and calendars—I’d even bet this house is in some of those very photographs. I’ve always wondered about the people who could afford a place like this. I mean, I’m struggling to pay the rent on my 500 square foot studio apartment, and this place is easily four times that size. And when you take the location into account, and the architecture…Nope. I can’t even ballpark the price of this home without my brain going into overload and shutting down.
I fidget in my seat, trying to get comfortable in my interview clothes. My skin is sticky beneath my skirt and blazer from now-dry sweat, a souvenir of my walk here from the T station. Summer is reveling in its last hurrah, today’s sweltering temperatures unconcerned that September begins next week. Thankfully, someone clearly installed air conditioning at some point in the centuries since this brownstone was built, so I’ve at least stopped fantasizing about peeling this blazer off and assaulting Victoria’s eyes with my (no doubt sweat-stained) sheer lace camisole.
Victoria returns before I have a chance to turn my mental ranting to the heels making my feet ache. (I lied, here it is: Heels are the worst. The End.)
“All right then, now that we’ve gotten to know each other a bit–” A bit? She knows more about my sex life than my best friend! “Let’s get down to business.”
Finally! I sit up straighter, ready to unseal the mystery and hear about this job.
“So why are you here? What are your dreams? Where do you want to take your life?”
Awash in discomfort all over again, I fight against the urge to shrink away from her inquisitive gaze. Her questions sink into my raw vulnerable places with torpedo force.
“Well, I’m here for….the job?” It comes out sounding like a question because I’m feeling far from certain about anything at this point.
“Yes, yes. I’ll pay you handsomely for the three month duration. I want to know about the bigger picture. What else will you be doing during that time?”
My heart drops. Three months? “Oh…I was under the impression this was a full time position?” I know I told Jamie that I was looking for something a little more permanent.
Fortunately, her expression remains calm and pleasant, showing no sign that she’s frustrated in the least by my cluelessness.
“Oh, yes. You might say it’s a 24/7 role. But you can’t just sit around all day. No, we can’t have that. People want a multi-dimensional character with a full life. Now, what is it that you really want to do? If you could have any job at all?”
If the nature of this job is the million dollar question in my life currently, then my aspiration for a future career is the two million dollar question. The one I was trying to avoid answering by coming here, hoping for some interesting and lucrative gig that would have me traveling the world with a pop star or Hollywood B-lister. At the very least, I figured, I could assist a Senator, or something. Anything to keep me busy and allow me to put off reality for a while.
It’s not that I’m a slacker. I always got good grades in school, even earned a scholarship that covered most of my college tuition. I was excited about my Communications degree, optimistic at my graduation ceremony even though I hadn’t managed to procure a job for the fall. At that point I hadn’t lost hoped; I was waiting to hear back from the company where I’d interned over the summer, and I just knew they would accept my application for a full time position. They didn’t. Neither did any of the dozen companies that invited me in for interviews or the countless others who ignored or rejected my applications.
The rejections chipped away at my confidence, slowly crippling my resolve until I just gave up. Desperate for a job, any job, I answered an ad on Facebook (reposted by a friend of a friend of a friend) for a personal assistant position. It was nothing fancy, just running errands and managing schedules and answering emails for a lawyer at his private firm, but it paid an okay salary, and it was a job. So I took it, and ended up staying for nearly two years even though he was a narcissistic misogynist who grew more and more hateful with each passing month. Until about three weeks ago, things finally came to a point where I couldn’t stand it any longer and I quit in a moment of angry spontaneity, throwing my steady paycheck and any chance at a positive reference out the window.
Which brings me here. Sitting in front of Victoria Trulette (I’m still not fully over the starstuck-itus) in a silence I know I’ve let go on too long for it not to be awkward. But try as I might, my mind simply goes blank when I attempt to conjure a vision of my aspirational future.
Say something, Audrey, you look like a fool!
“Well, I got my degree in Communications…”
“Yes…” Victoria trails off, presumably hoping I’ll take the opportunity to fill the silence with something dazzling (I don’t). I wonder if I’m finally wearing out her considerable supply of patience. “Communications. Is that what you want to do?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I admit.
She puts a finger to her chin while eyeing me up and down. Then she begins musing aloud, and I’m not sure if she even means me to hear or expects a response, so I just stay silent and let her go off. “Well you can’t just sit around and cash my paychecks. That would make for a boring character arc. Unless, I suppose, it was a marriage of convenience and you had to be a stay-at-home wife. A ‘dinner on the table at 5’ situation? Ahh, too outdated. Maybe if there were children involved…a widower? We do love a brooding hero.”
I cough a little, choking on air. “Did you say marriage? I think I’m going to need extra money if I have to get married to do this job.”
It was a joke, but rather than laughing Victoria nods, completely serious. “Yes, of course, we would compensate you more if that’s the route we decide to take.”
For the first time in this interview I begin to feel truly uneasy.
“Call me Victoria, please.”
“Victoria…May I ask, what exactly is the job we’re talking about?”
She smiles, appearing a touch delighted with herself. I can’t say this is any comfort to me. Then she surprises me by—once again—changing the topic entirely.
“I write romance novels.”
“Yes, ma’am, I know. I’ve read some of your books.”
“Do you know how hard it is to come up with a plausible fake relationship scenario?”
I feel like I have conversation whiplash. She goes on, while I paste on a face that I hope appears less clueless than I feel.
“It’s nearly impossible! And even harder to develop something fresh and new. The trope is so popular, and everyone wants in on it, but everything has been done already. Most even done well, but many also overdone. I’m not judging; I too find myself hard pressed to innovate outside the standard scenarios. You know the ones. The prince of a kingdom in need of a queen. The heir or heiress to a fortune whose trust or inheritance includes a marriage stipulation. The athlete who needs to be seen with a nice wholesome girlfriend to heal his soiled public image. I’ve even seen it spun as an athlete who wants a fake girlfriend to ward off the fangirls so he can focus on his sport without distraction! Let’s see…there’s also the hired escort or faux wedding date—oh, that one is very popular—the ‘My Fair Lady’ coaching/makeover scenario, the charade to appease pushy parents, custody battles, undercover agents…Oh, and the whole immigration/citizenship situation, of course.”
“Of course,” I echo faintly. I mean, I’ve read some books with those general plot lines, so at least what she’s saying isn’t entirely out of my frame of reference, but I still have no idea why she’s telling me all of this.
“So you see, it’s terribly difficult to come up with something fresh readers haven’t seen before. They love the trope, want more of it, but don’t want to read the exact same story plot over and over. There must always be the crucial elements, of course. A compelling reason the protagonists are drawn together, the tension of forced proximity—’just one bed’ is becoming a thing all on its own, if you can believe it—initial enmity, if possible.”
I’m going to get a headache if I keep nodding this much, but I don’t really know what else to do. Has she forgotten I’m here? Is she suffering from early dementia or something? She’s not that old, I’d guess early forties, but it’s possible, right?
“Which brings me to the reason you’re here.” Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. Thank goodness. “I find myself in a fortunate financial situation, gratuitous, even. So I thought, why not use some of it to contrive my very own fake relationship situation, and gain inspiration from real life as I watch it play out?”
“And the job…?” I prod, carefully.
“Well, isn’t it obvious?”
When she looks at me with those sharp crystal blue eyes it’s impossible to fathom she’s anything but mentally competent. Which makes me the one with a cognitive deficit in this room, because I’m not having the “a-ha!” moment of comprehension she’s clearly waiting for. Victoria sighs in disappointment, as though I’ve spoiled her fun by needing it spelled out for me.
“Audrey, darling, I’m going to pay you twenty thousand dollars to be in a fake relationship for the next three months. And then I’m going to write a book about it.”
02. Color Me Skeptical
She’s got to be shitting me.
The words almost pop out of my mouth, but this is still a job interview, so I manage to tone it down and say instead, “You’re kidding, right?”
One end of her mouth lifts into a half-smile. Her blue eyes are all kinds of mischievous. She’s actually kind of a fox. Not that I’m into older women or anything, but I bet she was a stunner a decade ago. Hell, she’s a stunner now.
She’s got a big old rock on her finger, so she’s obviously already been snatched up by some lucky old guy (or woman…hey, I’m down with lady on lady lovin’.)
“Oh, I assure you I am very serious.”
“Three months, twenty grand?”
I blow out a heavy breath and tug my hand through my hair before remembering I put shit in it this morning to keep it in place for the interview. Well, that’s shot to hell now. With one swipe of my fingers the overgrown strands bust free from the gunk’s tenuous hold, instantly resuming their usual M.O. of flopping haphazardly all over my head. Though still a little stiffer than usual, which means I probably look like a psycho porcupine. Oh well. Nothing I can do about it now.
A glance up at Victoria shows me her smile has widened and she’s scrutinizing me even more closely than before. Well, if she doesn’t mind my hair looking crazy, I guess I won’t waste another second sweating over it, either.
“What would I have to do?”
Okay, so this lady is probably off her rocker and it’s crazy to even consider going along with this, but…twenty grand. For three months of indulging Victoria’s matchmaking plot or whatever. And I’ll have my days free to work on my screen printing stuff without having to worry about cash flow.
I know guys who have done a lot weirder things for a lot less of a payout.
“I don’t have it one hundred percent mapped out yet. Part of the fun will be watching the story evolve as we go. You and Audrey—that’s our female protagonist, you’ll meet her soon—will have input as well. However, in a basic sense what you’ll have to do is enter into a pretend relationship with Audrey. You must convince your friends and family that the relationship is real. You’ll spend time together in various circumstances that will provide opportunities to interact authentically. And, of course, you’ll need to move into the condo I’ve leased for the two of you.”
Hold up. Wait one fucking minute. In my mind, a cartoon roadrunner screeches to a halt so fast he burrows four feet into the ground.
“You want us to live together?”
Okay, so my voice is doing that growly thing it does sometimes when I’m pissed, but I can’t help it. She threw that shit in there at the end like it’s no big deal. It is. A big fuckin’ deal. I haven’t lived with a female since I moved out of my parents’ place after high school and I’m not exactly dying to shack up with one any time soon. Not to mention I don’t even know this Audrey person! She could be a total nutjob who shaves off all my body hair while I’m sleeping and hoards it in a plastic bag she keeps under her pillow…Damn, I’ve been watching too many crime shows on TV.
Victoria nods like this isn’t a pretty hard nonstarter. “It’s essential. The forced proximity brings things to a head more quickly, creates more tension.”
I notice I’m grinding my back teeth, so I flex my jaw to relax the muscles before I give myself a headache. I mess with my hair again—it’s already fucked, so why not, right? It’s my stress tick. I’m tempted to stand up and hightail it out of here, away from this crazy “job” and whatever she means by bringing things to a head.
I exhale and remind myself why I need to stay.
Twenty thousand dollars.
“What’s your endgame here?” I opt for bluntness, fixing my eyes on those intense blue ones like I’ll be able to suss out her intentions if I only stare hard enough. “What do you really want from us?”
She smiles at me, appearing pleased. So glad I amuse you, lady.
“I want to take this trope—this genre, even—somewhere unique. I want to write a book inspired and informed by real life, and see how it differs from purely invented fiction. As for what I want from you…” She’s not winking at me, but she might as well be with that mischievous look in her eyes. “Well, of course it would be the ideal scenario for you and Audrey to fall in love. Readers do enjoy their happily ever after’s.”
My left brow—the one I can lift independent of the other, the most badass thing I ever managed to do with my face—quirks at her. Color me skeptical.
“That isn’t to say,” she goes on, “that I expect you to fall in love, nor do I want you to fake it. I consider it my job to cultivate the environment and provide opportunities, and all I want you to do is be yourself. The only faking you need to do is publicly, where as I mentioned you will need to convince the people in your life that you and Audrey are truly dating. You will need to sign a nondisclosure agreement—a more stringent version than the one you completed prior to this interview—binding you to secrecy on the terms of our partnership.”
The terms of our partnership. Damn, she’s taking this so seriously. I’m having a hard time doing the same. The whole thing is hard to wrap my mind around, but…Twenty grand? To hang out with some chick and live in what’s bound to be a swanky (pre-paid) pad for three months?
“What’s the catch?” I ask, shooting straight again since she seems to dig that. “Are you gonna be living there with us? Following us around to take notes? Will there be cameras, mic’s? This won’t actually turn out to be one of those reality TV shows?”
She nods in approval again. I like seeing the impressed sparkle in her eyes. Yeah, I’m a big guy who doesn’t go around shitting rainbows and quoting poetry, but I’m no imbecile. I could have gone to college, but I chose not to. (Chose is a generous word choice for that situation, but it’s the official story and I don’t feel like moseying down that pothole-ridden memory lane right now.) I make a decent living for myself working at the auto shop where my dad has been a mechanic for nearly twenty years. Sure, it doesn’t leave me much time to work on my side business which I’m hoping to turn into a full time career. That’s why I’m here, why I bit when an old buddy of mine mentioned something crazy had come across his desk at work that could be easy, if weird….the dough. I can spend these next three months really focusing on my own stuff, not pulling full days at the shop or exhausting myself picking up Uber shifts that have me out all night driving drunk assholes. This money will give me some breathing room to roll up my sleeves and see if I can really make a go of the screen printing business I’ve been running on the side since the end of high school. My dad wouldn’t be thrilled if I told him, but if I can get some momentum before I break the news I know he’ll come around. I’m so close I can almost touch it; making a successful career out of the only thing I’ve ever really been good at: drawing. Of course, the T-shirts are what will sell Dad; they’re a legit product, not just art, which he’s made damn clear is a waste of time. Whatever. He’ll have no place to complain, since with the money from this gig I’ll still be able to pitch in to help out with some of the family shit that’s been sucking us all dry for the past few years.
“It’s not a TV show,” Victoria assures me, bringing me back to the here and now. “I promise any recordings I might make will never be published for the public, only used for my own reference. I do need a way to monitor your interactions without tainting the data by inserting myself too obviously, but I will also do everything I can to respect your privacy. My lawyer is drawing up a full contract that we’re in the process of finalizing now, which will detail everything. And I’m open to negotiation if there’s anything in that document that makes you uncomfortable.”
“Can we nix the living together thing?”
“No, that one is a necessity.” Her words are no-nonsense, but she’s smiling at me like I’m an amusing little boy. To her, I guess I am. “Now, before you ask any more of your questions, I need you to answer one of mine. Do you think you’re going to accept the job?”
“You haven’t offered it to me yet,” I say, surprised. “I figured there were other candidates.”
“Consider this my official way of offering it to you. There were other candidates,” she admits, leaning forward and lowering her voice conspiratorially even though we’re the only ones here. “But I’m quite taken with you. And not just the muscles and rugged mountain-of-a-man thing you have going—what are you, six foot three? I’ll need all of those stats—but what’s better than a rough around the edges tough guy with a secret artistic side?”
“Aw, shucks, Vicky. You don’t gotta flatter me. The money’ll do just fine.” I bust out some of the North Shore accent I usually tone down (that’s “Nawth Shaw,” by the way), anticipating she’ll love it. Her slow, sly grin confirms my hunch.
“Is that a yes, then?”
“I think I’d be an idiot to say no, for this kind of payday. Don’t think I won’t read through that contract, though. I’m gonna make sure there’s no funny stuff hidden in there. But if it’s what you say it is, then yeah, I can be your guy.”
Copyright Elle Maxwell 2020. All Rights Reserved.