“Okay, A, no, there aren’t,” I said. “And B, it’s not as easy as you think, Gus. Happy endings don’t matter if the getting there sucks.”
I tipped my head against the window. “At this point, it honestly might be easier for me to pack it in on the upbeat women’s fiction and hop aboard the Bleak Literary Fiction train. At least it would give me an excuse to describe boobs in some horrifying new way. Like bulbous succulents of flesh and sinew. I never get to say bulbous succulents of flesh in my books.”
Gus leaned back against the driver’s side door and let out a laugh, which made me feel simultaneously bad for teasing him and ridiculously victorious for having made him laugh yet again. In college, I’d barely seen him crack a smile. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who’d changed.
“You could never write like that,” he said. “It’s not your style.”
I crossed my arms. “You don’t think I’m capable?”
Gus rolled his eyes. “I’m just saying it’s not who you are.”
“It’s not who I was,” I corrected. “But as you’ve pointed out, I’m different now.”
“You’re going through something,” he said, and again, I felt an uncomfortable prickle at him seeming to x-ray me like that, and at the spark of the old competitive flame Gus always ignited in me. “But I’d wager you’re about as likely to churn out something dark and dreary as I am to go all When Harry Met Sally.”
“I can write whatever I want,” I said. “Though I can see how writing a Happily Ever After might be hard for someone whose happy endings usually happen during one-night stands.”
Gus’s eyes darkened, and his mouth hitched into an uneven smile. “Are you challenging me, Andrews?”
“I’m just saying,” I parroted him, “it’s not who you are.”
Gus scratched his jaw, his eyes clouding as he recessed into thought. His hand dropped to rest over the steering wheel and his focus shifted sharply to me. “Okay,” he said. “I have an idea.”
“A seventh Pirates of the Caribbean movie?” I said. “It’s so crazy it might work!”
“Actually,” Gus said, “I thought we could make a deal.”
“What sort of deal, Augustus?”
He visibly shuddered at the sound of his full name and reached across the car. A spark of anticipation—of what, I wasn’t sure—rushed through me. But he was only opening the box in my lap and grabbing another donut. Coconut.
He bit into it. “You try writing bleak literary fiction, see if that’s who you are now, if you’re capable of being that person”—I rolled my eyes and snatched the last bite of donut from his hand. He went on, unbothered—“and I’ll write a Happily Ever After.”
My eyes snapped up to his. The fringes of the porch light were making their way through the fog now, brushing at the car window and catching at the sharp angle of his face and the dark wave that fell across his forehead. “You’re kidding.”
“I’m not,” he said. “You’re not the only one who’s been in a rut. I could use a break from what I’m doing—”
“Because writing a romance will be so easy it will essentially be a nap for you,” I teased.
“And you can lean into your bleak new outlook and see how it fits. If this is the new January Andrews. And whoever sells their book first—with a pen name, if you prefer—wins.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but no words came out. I closed it and tried again. “Wins what?”
Gus’s brow lifted. “Well, first of all, you’ll have sold a book, so you can pay your bills and keep your purse stocked with wine. Secondly …” He thought for a moment. “The loser will promote the winner’s book, write an endorsement for the cover, recommend it in interviews, choose it when guest judging for book clubs, and all that, guaranteeing sales. And thirdly, if you win, you’ll be able to rub it in my face forever, which I suspect you’d consider nearly priceless.”
I couldn’t come close to hiding the smile blooming across my face. “True.” Everything he was saying made at least some sense. Wheels were turning in my head—wheels that had been out of order for the past year. I really did think I could write the kind of book Gus wrote, that I could mimic The Great American Novel.
It was different with love stories. They meant too much to me, and my readers had waited too long for me to give them something I didn’t wholeheartedly believe in.
It was all starting to add up. Everything except one detail. I narrowed my eyes. Gus exaggeratedly narrowed his back. “What do you stand to gain here?” I asked.
“Oh, all the same things,” he said. “I want something to lord over you. And money. Money’s always helpful.”
“Uh-oh,” I said. “Is there trouble in Coldly Horny Paradise?”
“My books take a long time to write,” Gus said. “The advances have been good, but even with my scholarships, I had a lot of student loans, and some old debt, and then I put a lot into this house. If I can sell something quick, it will help me out.”
I gasped and clutched my heart. “And you would stoop to peddling the sadomasochistic American dream of lasting love?”
Gus frowned. “If you’re not into the plan, just forget it.”
But now I couldn’t forget it. Now I needed to prove to Gus that what I did was harder than it looked, that I was just as capable as he was. Besides, having Augustus Everett promote a book of mine would have benefits I couldn’t afford to pass up.
“I’m in,” I said.
His eyes bored into me, that evil smile climbing the corner of his top lip. “You sure? This could be truly humiliating.”
An involuntary laugh sprang out of me. “Oh, I’m counting on it,” I said. “But I’ll make it a little easier on you. I’ll throw in a rom-com crash course.”
“Fine,” Gus said. “Then I’ll take you through my research process. I’ll help you lean into your latent nihilism, and you’ll teach me how to sing like no one’s listening, dance like no one’s watching, and love like I’ve never been hurt before.”
His faint grin was contagious, if overconfident.
“You really think you can do this?” I asked.
He lifted one shoulder. “You think you can?”
I held his gaze as I thought. “And you’ll endorse the book? If I win and sell the book, you’ll write a shiny pull quote to slap on the cover, no matter how bad it is.”
His eyes were doing the thing again. The sexy/evil thing where they expanded and darkened as he lost himself in thought. “I remember how you wrote when you were twenty-two,” he said carefully. “It won’t be bad.”
I fought a blush. I didn’t understand how he could do that, bounce between being rude, almost condescending, and disarmingly complimentary.
“But yes,” he added, leaning forward. “Even if you give me a novelization of the sequel to Gigli, if you sell it, I will endorse it.”
I sat back to put some distance between us. “Okay. So what about this? We spend our weekdays writing, and leave the end of the week for education.”