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Ink & Lies
S.L. Jennings

Winter

YOU KNOW THAT PIVOTAL MOMENT in every love story, when the hero or heroine makes an imperative move that leaves the other with a life-altering choice? Whether it be a pronouncement of love (I’ve been in love with you my entire life, and I don’t care that you’re my stepbrother) or a salacious secret (I’m pregnant and the baby isn’t yours) or a shocking decision (I’ve decided to embrace what I am. I’m transitioning into a unicorn, and I’m pregnant…by my stepbrother), we can always count on this familiar occurrence.

I’ve always deemed them cliché yet necessary in the romance genre. A good plot twist is as vital to a story as its characters. Without it, the hero and heroine would have no reason to change, to evolve. They’d have no reason to step out on faith and madness and take hold of their destiny. Take hold of their story.

I once lived for the perfect plot twist.

I just never expected to actually live it.

I look down at my boarding pass for the eightieth time in the last fifteen minutes. Gate 3B, Seat 2A. GEG to LAX. Final boarding in…now.

Sixteen hours ago, I succumbed to the insanity of feeling, and made my crucial confession. I began that almighty trek up a story’s climactic mountain. And every hour, every minute since, I’ve waited for her to make her choice.

To make me her choice.

The attendant glares at me from over her intercom receiver and announces that the gate for flight D5611 will be closing in sixty seconds. She’s saying it for only me, because I’m the only one here. Waiting. Crumbling.

I take one last look down the corridor that leads to security. I just knew that she’d show up, racing through the airport, screaming for someone to stop the plane. That was how I’d imagined my story…our story. The greatest cliché of all, and I still couldn’t breathe it into fruition. I still couldn’t get her to read between the lines scrawled on my heart.

I guess the most epic romances are still tucked away within the pages of her favorite novels, safely swathed in inked lies and faded paper promises. Forever fictional. Just like love.

Fall

YOU WANT TO KNOW THE secret to writing the most epic shit of my career?

Simple. Don't try to write the most epic shit of my career.

Trying is nothing but an endless murky abyss of self-doubt and loathing, where I choke on every flowery fucking word and puke up purple prose like it’s last night's whiskey. Then I bang my head on the desk and pour another shot to keep my fingers from gouging my eyes out.

Drink, delete, repeat.

I used to try. Now I just lie.

Yup. Lying is much easier. Lying landed me on every best seller's list I had ever dreamed about. I wrote shit that women wanted to read and pretty much lived off their fantasies and unsatisfied sex lives.

Ah yes. Life was sweet in the land of liars.

Then the bubble burst.

They thought it was Hope Hughes bringing their book boyfriends to life. Certainly not August Rhys Calloway (That’s me, by the way.) And once upon a time, I had this insane idea to become a writer. Not much I could do about it either. Once the words choose you, you’re doomed. So that’s what I set out to be—the next great American literary.

Just so you know, I tanked. Like Titanic tanked. My ass still has frostbite from that damn iceberg.

Biting it in such a big way really discouraged me for some time, but somewhere between delirium and desperation, I decided to turn my epic fail into an epic win.

I wrote a romance novel.

Now, I know what you’re thinking… how can a straight, cynical, slightly arrogant guy capture the all-consuming romance that each woman craves? Easy. He listens.

He listens to all the complaints from past failed relationships. He conjures up terrifying memories of three-hour-long phone calls and eight-page letters. And he enlists the help of his hopeless romantic best friend and her train wreck of a love life. After that, he slaps a very feminine pen name on the cover—along with some busty dame enraptured in the boulder-like arms of Fabio Jr.—And voila! You’ve got yourself a romance novel.

Of course, there’s much more to it. But to be honest, I BS’d my way through 85% of that book. Ok, 90%…93%. But I’d like to think it was that 7% of pure August gold that helped it climb the charts of every bestseller’s list that matters. Not the hot monkey sex I had properly regurgitated throughout.

Being Hope Hughes, romance novelist, was much more profitable and ego-indulging than being August Rhys Calloway, struggling writer. So I ran with it—all the way to a sweet book deal with a top publishing house and a massive following.

Who knew?

Three novels later, Hope is still here, but so is August. Less than a year ago, it was revealed that Hope was, in fact, male. Somehow, it only made the Hope brand more popular, both professionally and personally. A man was capturing these poetic words of passion and longing? A man finally got it? Hope was hotter than ever. But creatively? August was dunzo.

The mojo has left the building. The words—the very same that had so incessantly pursued me—have now abandoned me. So yes, I’m still here, but the words are gone.

My favorite waitress at my favorite bistro approaches my favorite table, asking me if I’d like to order a drink while I wait. I set down my worn Moleskine and look up at her to answer, just in time to catch my best friend bustling in, a tiny tornado of chestnut hair and smeared mascara.

“Few more minutes,” I tell her while giving Fiona the stink eye. She flops into the seat across from me, apologizing profusely.

“Sorry, I’m late, Rhys,” she huffs, picking up her menu. She doesn’t call me August. She hasn’t since the day we met back in college, nearly ten years ago. She said August was an uptight, pretentious tool that took himself way too seriously. Rhys was her cool, casual friend that would suffer through every chick flick on Netflix and split Hawaiian pizza with her because no one else would dare sully a pie with pineapple. He was the guy who would recite famed love stories from her most beloved writers, and dry her tears with the pads of his ink-stained thumbs. He was the one that was there to smother broken promises and shattered hearts with sarcasm and whiskey weekends followed by innocent spooning underneath her favorite old quilt.

She doesn’t meet my gaze. I slowly pull down the vinyl binder with the tip of my finger. “Um, nice of you to join me, dear. Rough night?”

She diverts her smoky raccoon eyes and tries to casually smooth her rooster-like locks into something less telling. That’s when I take in the rest of her. Wrinkled, white, silk blouse. Tight, black mini that’s more suitable for the queens over at Irv’s drag show, and platform pumps that’ll have her limping with blisters for a week.

I raise a knowing brow. “Why, Miss Fiona Shaw, did you just walk-of-shame your ass in here smelling like stale sex and some random’s cheap cologne?”

“Shhh!” She waves me away and retreats behind this week’s Fresh Sheet. “Keep your voice down. And not some random’s cheap cologne. It happens to be Joshua’s, and it’s definitely not cheap.”

“Ah. The elusive Joshua.” I sit back in my seat and steeple my fingers in front of me with all the flair of an evil genius plotting world domination. “And when am I going to meet this mystery man? It’s been what…three months now? I’m nearly convinced that Joshua might very well be a six-foot tall Sinthetic doll you’ve got stashed under your bed.”

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