Romance blossoms between two city planners posing as newlyweds in this first in a bright new series by acclaimed author Ruby Lang
The last thing Oliver Huang expects to see on the historic Mount Morris home tour is longtime acquaintance Fay Liu bustling up and kissing him hello. He’s happy to playact being a couple to save her from a pushy admirer. Fay’s beautiful, successful and smart, and if he’s being honest, Oliver has always had a bit of a thing for her.
Maybe more than a bit.
Geeking out over architectural details is Oliver and Fay’s shared love language, and soon they’re touring pricey real estate across Upper Manhattan as the terribly faux but terribly charming couple Darling and Olly.
For the first time since being laid off from the job he loved, Oliver has something to look forward to. And for the first time since her divorce, Fay’s having fun.
Somewhere between the light-filled living rooms and spacious closets they’ve explored, this faux relationship just may have sparked some very real feelings. For Oliver and Fay, home truly is where their hearts are.
One-click with confidence. This title is part of the Carina Press Romance Promise: all the romance you’re looking for with an HEA/HFN. It’s a promise!
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In all their years as wary mutual acquaintances, Oliver Huang never expected Fay Liu to be so happy to see him. But here she was, in this showcase home on the Mount Morris Park historic house tour, flashing Oliver a huge, almost desperate smile. She stepped right up to kiss him heartily on the lips, and in the process knocked his glasses askew, smudging them.
Then as he reached up to adjust them, she commandeered his arm and linked hers through his.
Fay was a fellow urban planner and, most importantly, she was a partner at Milieu. They had mutual friends. He'd even sent her firm a CV, and had finally received a follow-up from one of her partners expressing interest just that morning. For a fuzzy moment, he wondered if she was here, had sought him out directly, to arrange the interview. Still, he hadn't expected Fay to be quite so warm and, well, handsy? lipsy? — was that a word? — about greeting a potential employee.
And wasn't she married?
But she gripped him more tightly and snuggled into his side. She felt good tucked into him. So, he allowed himself to relax, to enjoy touching another human body again, to almost hug someone, to feel needed, and wanted, and seen.
It was such a fleeting, wonderful connection. Fleeting, because in less than a minute, he understood what this was.
A man clomped up to them and scowled at the picture Oliver and Fay presented, standing in the upper hallway of the brownstone, looking for all the world like a pair of proud new homeowners.
Such a lovely illusion.
"Oh, so this is the boyfriend you were talking about," Clompy Man said.
Fay tipped her head back, her glossy hair catching the light, and gazed up at Oliver adoringly. "Oliver, Brent here was offering to take me to the rest of the stops on the tour. But I said I was waiting for you to arrive, because I know you're such an architecture hound that you wouldn't want to miss it."
"I'm sorry I was late. I got held up at the, uh, boxing gym."
To her credit, she did not roll her eyes. Boxing gym. Oliver had never been inside a boxing gym if that's what they were called. Fay said, "That's all right, honey. I know how much you enjoy sparring. You're so strong and quick on your feet."
She gave his biceps a squeeze, two, as if the first weren't enough, and he almost laughed aloud.
She felt it, too. Even if their improvised dialog was stilted and terrible — or maybe because it was — they shared genuinely amused grins.
Brent the Clomper didn't appear quite as delighted with their acting skills.
He stood there, looking at them, breathing heavily. Eying Brent's heavily muscled torso, Oliver wondered if he was about to get into a fight for the first time in his adult life. It was unlikely — very unlikely. And yet, Oliver found himself considering what would happen if he had to take the bigger, younger man. Oliver was actually quick on his feet — but Brent was taller and much heavier. But Oliver also knew — he knew this for a fact — that if Brent swung, Fay would join in angrily and enthusiastically. Both of them together could definitely defeat one Clompy Brent, although they'd probably break Oliver's glasses, not to mention scuff the dark wood floors of this brownstone, knock over the antique side table that held a collection of candles and pictures, and possibly damage the expensively restored newel posts of the gorgeous staircase in the process. That would be a damn shame.
Nonetheless, Oliver tightened his fists. So did Fay. For a moment, they stood tense, frozen, the smile on Fay's face becoming slightly wider and more ominous, although the scariest thing about it was how attractive Oliver found it.
The old floor creaked. The sounds of greetings came from downstairs. A small group of people was likely bounding up the porch steps, eager to ooh and aah over Harlem real estate.
Clompy Brent flicked his eyes down toward where the sound emerged and he grunted. Evidently deciding that historic preservation was the better part of valor, he gave Fay a curt nod and went ponderously down the stairs.
Oliver sagged in relief — and a little disappointment. When the crowd passed beneath them through the front hall, he turned to Fay and she turned to him and they said, simultaneously, "Are you okay?"
Fay started again. "He was so persistent. Sorry to involve you."
Then, as if realizing they were still standing close, Fay slipped her arm out from his and they stepped away from each other.
"Don't apologize. It's messed up that you felt like you needed a cover."
Fay shook her head as if to clear it. "That was tense, wasn't it? He started pestering me one house back on the tour. I said I wasn't interested, and he didn't listen. When we got to this house, I told him I had a boyfriend and then I started trying to edge back downstairs to find the greeter when you arrived. But really it was nothing. It was fine."
Oliver was quiet for a bit, trying to process what she'd said. She was slightly embarrassed judging from her abrupt manner — not that she had anything to be ashamed of at all. But the other thing that stood out was that she'd made up a fake boyfriend instead of referring to her husband. Which meant ... He glanced at her hand. No ring. Maybe she wasn't married anymore. So not the point here. But why did he suddenly feel so — not happy, not relieved, but ... alert? Interested.
He hadn't felt interested in anything for a long time.
She added grudgingly, "I'm really glad I ran into you."
"An architect friend had a ticket that he couldn't use. I wasn't about to pass up a chance to scope out people's houses."
She laughed at that — maybe a little too hard. So, he asked gently, "Would you like a cup of coffee or some water, or something? Or if you don't mind, would you show me around? It's the first time I've ever been on the Mount Morris Park house tour."
"Are you kidding me? The restorations are gorgeous, but the tour also really highlights this area's community-led revitalization. Have you seen all the businesses that have opened up on Malcolm X Boulevard lately? Plus, what New Yorker doesn't love ogling real estate?"
The fact that she relaxed instantly told him he'd done the right thing in giving her a project: namely, him. But of course, he couldn't quite feel at ease around her because her firm had his CV. If he didn't want to live with his brother forever he was going to have to get that job. She still hadn't said anything about it — in fact, she seemed oblivious — but Fay could potentially be his next boss. His sexy, non-ring-wearing-and-therefore-possibly-available boss. It was the worst kind of in-between space to be in with her: not closely acquainted enough to be friends, not quite coworkers, not quite flirting.
Instead of thinking about jobs or how he'd always liked her, he concentrated very hard on the leaded glass skylight that she was pointing out and tried to ignore the tingle that crept up his spine when her insistent hands pushed him toward the next set of stairs in order to show him the pitted, stained brick of an old fireplace that hadn't yet been restored. They chatted with the greeter, Ms. Gloria Hernández, who was oblivious to the drama that had taken place upstairs.
"Oh, we get all sorts of people here who want to know about the history of the area. And then there are the ones who think they're on some kind of house shopping spree and say things like, I'm gonna rip out that tile over there and put in a chandelier made of diamonds and hundred dollar bills up here. And some people who just want to poke through their neighbor's medicine cabinets."
Ms. Hernández peered at them as if to decide which of the three categories they belonged in and Oliver tried not to look like a rich asshole or a person with too much curiosity about other people's meds.
Fay said hastily, "We love the neighborhood. Also, we both have a professional interest."
"Are you historians?"
"No, we're urban planners."
"What's that all about?"
"Well, we work with city government and developers and community groups to look at how land is used to figure out how to grow and accommodate a community's needs. We look at zoning and infrastructure. We talk to the residents and community leaders and try to help all these groups figure out what kinds of businesses they need, or if they need more schools, or more bike lanes —"
"No bike lanes. Hard enough for my sister to park already. Every Tuesday and Thursday she has to sit in her car for a half-hour to wait out the street cleaners. She's read everything by Toni Morrison twice already. Although I suppose it doesn't sound so bad when you put it that way."
"We also make recommendations for more affordable housing."
"Well, I know all about that. I've lived in my building since 1969, and if I hadn't bought early, I wouldn't be able afford five square feet to myself anymore. A young couple like you, if you want to start a family in this neighborhood, if you aren't the CEO of something, you can forget about it," she said. "Urban planner, that's a real job, huh?"
Fay laughed. "Oh, it's very real."
But Oliver noticed that Fay didn't bother to say that what wasn't real was Ms. Hernández's assumption that he and Fay were a couple.
When they were safely out of the house and on their way to the next stop, Fay explained, "There was a lot to unpack in what she was telling us about the neighborhood. It seemed harmless to let that one thing go. Plus, you could have jumped in at any time."
"I like letting you take the lead."
She gave him a slow smile that he felt down to his feet. "I like that you let me take the lead."
She walked off and it was a few seconds before he managed to catch up to her.
A few other people at the next stops made the same assumption, too, and neither bothered to correct them. It was easier to concentrate on other matters: to pause to look up the history of the neighborhood on their phones, to hold up before and after pictures of houses that had been burned-out shells, to hope that more houses had stayed in the hands of Black residents, to pause to argue lightly about the Whole Foods that had sprung up on 125th Street. "I'd forgotten how slowly I move when I'm with another urban planner," Fay said suddenly, laughing. "But that's how we earn those billable hours, isn't it?"
It wasn't a bad thing; in fact it was a small inside joke. But thinking about his billable hours — his career, his current lack of a job, the fact that her firm had been so slow to respond, the fact that he was living with his brother, well, it put a damper on Oliver's mood. He could have asked for her number right then. He could have said something about meeting again next weekend to walk through Marcus Garvey Park, which they hadn't had nearly enough time to explore. But he had no business asking out anyone right now, not when he was a mess, and especially not when he felt that slight thread of unease around the fact that he was in the running for a job with her firm.
But she obviously didn't remember or care, otherwise, she would have mentioned it.
There was a lot they hadn't said to each other.
She was still smiling at him. But he didn't ask for her number. He didn't ask if he could see her again.
So, when she paused, almost expectantly, he said, "I'll walk you down to your platform."
And he watched her get on her train.
Fay was still smiling that evening as she pulled a pot out of the moving boxes in order to make dinner.
On the way home, she'd bought the fancy instant ramen, a bunch of green onions, and a single grilled chicken breast. She shredded some of the chicken and the scallions with her hands and dumped them in with the noodles. Then she found a pair of disposable chopsticks from a takeout bag she'd left on her counter and sat down on the floor cross-legged to eat from the pot. Her mother wouldn't quite approve of her methods, but at least Ma Liu would be happy that Fay used only half the seasoning packet.
She should have taken that Saturday afternoon to unpack, but she just couldn't stomach it. She'd moved twice in the last year: once into a sublet when she'd asked her husband for a divorce (he could keep the apartment and its expensive lease), and then into this old, pre-war one bedroom with worn floors and tall windows that rattled when it stormed. But it was hers. She'd bought it with her own money.
It was probably a mistake.
She hadn't had time to brood about it, though. Her marriage unraveled at the same time that the firm that she'd started with two college classmates had been going through growing pains. But while the extra work had been a welcome distraction, she and her partners were clearly shorthanded and needed desperately to hire someone. She'd thrown herself into putting out fires at work and her partners had been left to hire HR consultants, go through CVs, and interview people.
This was the first weekend she'd taken off in a long time. And now that she had a chance to glance around, the apartment was in rougher shape than she remembered. She had a lot of furniture to buy — she didn't even have a bed. Her mattress sat on the floor. It seemed too difficult to summon the depth of will she needed to start a new project, to whip it into shape. She wanted something polished, finished. She wanted just one thing — one thing — in her life to be ready for her.
But this was no time to wallow. She was going to hold on to the good mood that Oliver had helped her earn for as long as she could. She tapped on FaceTime and propped her phone up on a box.
"Not wallowing for a change," Renata said approvingly. "What happened to you today?"
Renata was on the patio of her house in Seattle, sipping something from a tall glass while her kids screamed in the background.
"I had a good time. But I see you've started drinking."
"It's four in the afternoon on a Saturday, and I've already shuttled to and from two kid birthday parties, and my wife's been on a business trip for the last week. The drinking started hours ago."
Fay held up her ramen bowl. "Cin-cin."
She slurped her soup, which earned her an outraged squeal all the way from Seattle.
"You're as gross as my children."
"I'm sitting on the floor eating ramen and scraps of chicken and onion that I've rended with my own hands, Renata. You don't know the half of it."
"And you still haven't made any progress with the unpacking, I see. You're usually right on top of projects."
Well, this conversation was not helping Fay maintain her buoyant mood. "Stop mom-ing me, Renata. I already have one, and she's enough. Maybe I'm turning over a new leaf, trying to be more relaxed about everything. Maybe I'm tired. Besides, you'll be happy to know that the reason I was happy was because I went out — and not to the office."
"The Mount Morris Park house tour!"
"That sounds like planner work."
"It was fun! The houses are beautiful. I love looking at real estate, and I wanted to learn more about how Central Harlem has changed in the space of ten years —"
Renata made a warning noise.
"— And Renata, you yourself were telling me that I should look around for ideas for my apartment."
"I meant in magazines or on, like, Pinterest. God, did I just recommend Pinterest? Maybe I am mom-ing you. Not that there's anything wrong with moms."
"Well, this was a really great self-guided tour, and I got to see some beautiful things ... except there was a guy who got way too aggressive about asking me out. Like, following me around and talking to me for a while, especially when there was no one else around —" Renata opened her mouth to say something, and Fay cut her off quickly. "But that turned out okay, too."
"What, did you give him a right hook and send him backward off the porch? You did, didn't you? That's why you look happy. Is he dead? I knew this day would come, I have just the person to represent you. Let me get —"
From seemingly out of nowhere Renata hauled up her briefcase and set it next to her wineglass.
"No. No. No one's dead — or hurt."
"There's a story here."
Renata lowered the briefcase out of sight again. Fay didn't know why she was suddenly reluctant to share. Nothing had really happened, after all. "Oliver Huang showed up. I pretended he was my boyfriend and the dude backed off."
She cleared her throat. "Yep."
"The one with the cheekbones." Her friend was now peering hard at the phone, trying to read Fay's face. Luckily the light was bad enough in her apartment that Renata probably couldn't see Fay's blush.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Playing House"
Copyright © 2019 Mindy Hung.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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