The Decoy Girlfriend320
The Decoy Girlfriend320
Writer Freya Lal has a huge secret: she's a dead ringer for It-girl actress Mandi Roy. Her second novel is due in a month, but inspiration is nowhere to be found. Desperate to shake off her writer's block, Freya leans into her look-alike abilities and indulges in some mistaken identity for simple perks, like scoring a free mimosa or getting into a trendy nightclub.
Actor Taft Bamber appears to have it all: gorgeous, talented, and Mandi's love interest both on- and off-screen. But what nobody knows is that their relationship is a PR stunt, and after years of playing make-believe, he's yearning for something real.
When Freya's latest impersonation of Mandi goes viral thanks to Taft's accidental interference, rumors of a breakup threaten Hollywood's golden couple. To make amends, Freya is forced to give Mandi a little time off: she'll pretend to be the actress for a month, move in with Taft, and squash the rumors by acting completely in love. But as Freya and Taft play house, it becomes impossible to ignore that their instant chemistry isn't just for the cameras. While faking it, they might have just found the real thing.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
With two huge secrets, Freya Lal is the exact opposite of the open book she always considered herself to be.
She stares at the laptop on the counter of her aunt's bookshop, Books & Brambles. The blinking cursor at the end of the page mocks her. Grimly, she rereads her words until she has no choice but to come to the conclusion that she is, in fact, a one-hit wonder who will never be published again.
She holds down the Delete key until every single awful word is obliterated. The pinching band of tightness around her chest eases the moment the Word doc is blank again. Yesterday's words are gone, and she already can't remember what they said. It feels like Freya's chased away a bogeyman, one that's been Frankensteined together with ugly words stitched into unflattering sentences.
The more she thinks about it, not only does her imposter syndrome become more plausible, it becomes more obvious: her first book deal-when she was a teenage wunderkind-was obviously a fluke. How the hell is she supposed to turn in a first draft of her second book to her publisher when she can't even write two paragraphs before self-doubt creeps in? She's been keeping her lack of progress a secret from everyone for so long that the only thing that will help her now is to-
No. That's secret number two, and she swore that she was cutting back.
After throwing her long brown hair into a high ponytail, she shoves her oversize electric-blue plastic-framed glasses up her nose and holds back a groan. The only thing she has going for her right now is the fact that absolutely no one in Books & Brambles knows that the twenty-three-year-old girl slumped next to the register is in the throes of an existential crisis.
The indie bookshop is a few minutes away from its 9:00 a.m. opening, and two other employees are putting the finishing touches on the themed window display. Freya can catch snippets of conversation regaling all the gory details of her coworkers' terrible Tinder dates drifting down the aisle, too quiet and far away for her to take part in, even if she were dating right now (which she isn't) and even if she wanted to (which she doesn't).
"Are we sure these should be here?" Cliff's voice is strained, like he's lifting a tall stack of books.
With a confidence far greater than her few weeks of working here, Emma authoritatively replies, "If Stori left them up here, then yeah. Left window is for summer swoons, and right window is for summer slashers."
"I know that." Cliff's words are punctuated with a solid thump that Freya can only imagine is him setting down the books until the confusion is cleared up. "I meant are we sure because it's an old title."
"That can't be right. Let me see that- Oh. Just put them there."
"Should we double-check with Stori?"
"You mean Freya's aunt? Of course not," Emma snorts. "Didn't the name on the cover ring a bell?"
"Oh shit." Cliff's voice drops. "This is actually her? I thought she was a writer in the same way that you're a model."
Like Freya, Emma was another East Coast transplant who came to Los Angeles with big dreams. She had yet to book a modeling gig but had added influencer to her Instagram bio after her third DM from a brand that didn't care she hadn't cracked a thousand followers.
"I am a model." Emma's indignant and forgets to whisper. "She hasn't published a new book in years."
Mortification stings like fire ants down Freya's neck. They haven't said anything that isn't true, but it still hurts to hear the confirmation that she's already considered a has-been. In a city that makes dreams as often as it crushes them, it's not a lonely club, but it's not the life she'd envisioned for herself, either.
Compared to her debut novel, writing book two has been a completely different experience in every way. In high school, Freya-a self-professed neutral evil on the alignment chart-was entirely consumed by her writing. She woke up thinking about her characters, went to bed excited to write the next day's words, and jolted awake at 3:00 a.m. to jot down fragments of dialogue or scene ideas in her iPhone's Notes app. She spent every study hall reading the latest YA novel and asked for writing books and summer workshops every birthday and Christmas to level up on her craft.
The difference is Freya's mom had been around to cheerlead back then. Anjali Lal had a fierce optimism in all things but especially in this: if her daughter wanted to publish a book, she had every faith that it was a when, not an if. As Freya's first beta reader, her mother knew this was the one with a certainty Freya doubts she herself has had about anything in her entire life.
Freya never had to look for her own inner validation because she knew she always had her mom's.
Until she didn't anymore.
"Look, forget about it. It's Stori's call, and we're opening in, like, five minutes," Emma says finally. "Take the new Riley Sager novel and finish the other window before she notices we're running behind."
"Seriously?" Cliff complains, voice back to normal. "I helped you unbox the new Tessa Bailey, set up the sandbox, and used my superior stamina to inflate the beach ball and flamingo floatie."
Emma makes a bad joke about blowing, but Freya's already tuning them out.
The blank white page on her screen stares damningly back at her, so she fixes her gaze on the mountain of Steph Kirkland books on the display stand closest to the register. All Freya has to do is get through the rest of the day, then it will all be better. Her best friends, who started as Twitter critique partners and turned into real-life besties, are all flying out to celebrate Steph's book signing at Books & Brambles tonight.
They're the only ones who know her second secret.
Even the best writer can have a bad writing day—or, in Freya's case, bad writing years—but this is the one thing she is always, always good at: impersonating the actress Mandini Roy.
The first time it happened was back in New York a year after her mother had passed, and it had been a complete coincidence while she was out on a date (back when she actually dated). It was with a guy from her building, and they didn't have a reservation for the trendy new rooftop bar he thought he could schmooze his way into. But by some strange stroke of luck, simply because Freya had parted her hair a certain way and worn a dress that looked kind of like one Mandi had worn to Cannes Film Festival, security had waved them through without even a blink.
That first time had been a total accident.
But every time after that hadn't been.
A free mimosa at a trendy new bistro off Madison Square Park; skipping the queue at an upscale lounge in Chelsea, the kind of venue where they wouldn't let you in if you were wearing sneakers, shorts, or sandals; rooftop bars frequented by the Wall Street crowd, offering sweeping skyline views.
Since her mother's death, Freya had lost all motivation to write. None of her usual tricks-people-watching, rereading her dog-eared and well-thumbed favorite books, taking up a new hobby-worked.
But the first time she was mistaken for Mandi, she couldn't wait to end the date so she could go home and write. Freya couldn't justify doing it often enough to finish her second book, but when she did, the novelty and, frankly, danger of it all fed her writing inspiration like nothing else could.
Maybe she wouldn't feel the temptation if she were good at something else, but after college, getting that external validation proved a lot harder. But studying was always an area where she excelled, and it didn't take much to talk herself into just one more experiment. She devoured every picture and interview of Mandi's until she had the actress's style down pat. Though there was no way she could afford the thousand-dollar-plus price tags of Mandi's favorite designers, Freya's copycat outfits were just as fashionable, for a fraction of the cost.
Successfully getting away with being Mandi broke the monotony of impending deadlines, the stress of her dwindling bank balance living in a city she could barely afford while attending NYU's undergraduate Creative Writing Program, and of the plunging guilt in her stomach that reminded her that with every night out, she was letting down her mom's memory.
Freya felt her mom's absence so keenly that she didn't think she could handle smelling the scent of her mom's perfume or seeing bits of her unfinished business around her childhood home: a bookmark stuck in the middle of an unreturned library book; a recipe she'd ripped out of a magazine, stuck to the fridge, and never got around to making; the clothes with price tags still hanging in her half of the closet.
So when her aunt invited Freya to come live with her in LA to focus on her writing, she'd leaped at the offer. Freya returns Stori's generosity by helping out around the bookshop every day.
"Good morning, everyone!" Stori sweeps onto the bookshop floor. She's wearing a smart short-sleeved mock turtleneck and brown houndstooth trousers. "Thanks for holding down the fort, Freya. I just got off the phone with the caterers for Steph's event tonight and sorted out the canapŽ situation."
"We're all done with the windows, too!" Cliff calls out.
Emma makes a sound of agreement.
"Perf! And you?" Stori turns to Freya with an expectant look on her face.
Aunt Astoria, who insisted on going by Stori, was her father's half sister and the only child from Freya's grandfather's second marriage. She's closer in age to Freya than she is to Freya's dad, but that doesn't stop her from occasionally slipping into a persona where she thinks Freya's her own child, instead of the adult who's basically her sister.
Stori has no idea what Freya's going to get up to tonight, and Freya's going to keep it that way.
Freya pastes what she hopes is an I have my shit together smile on her face as she removes her glasses. "I, um, got a lot of writing done, too."
Stori beams with pride. "I knew moving out here was exactly what you needed."
"Oh yeah. Absolutely." Freya nods, half-guilty and half-proud that she's gotten away with her little white lie about her huge blank page. She lowers the top of her laptop, hiding her shame from view.
"Don't forget to wear your store name tag!" Stori flashes an encouraging smile. "Today's going to be a busy one."
Tuesdays—book-release day—always are.
The next few hours go by in a blur of Books & Brambles's regulars and a few random walk-ins. Through some determined handselling, something that once filled Freya with awful anxiety but got easier every time she did it, she sells several copies of Steph's book and talks up tonight's signing.
By now, Freya's spent enough time away from her keyboard to start missing it. Her fingertips hum with the need to clack some keys and see her words take shape. She's glad Stori and the staff are out to lunch so she can work without distractions.
"Oh my god, this place is so cute!"
At the giddy squeal, which rings extra loud in the first quiet lull of the day, Freya glances up from her half-eaten Cup Noodles still steaming away in its Styrofoam cup.
Two wide-eyed teenage girls, presumably sisters, have entered the bookshop, followed by their tired-looking mother. They all share the same dirty-blond hair and i love la shirt in different colors.
Books & Brambles had made the same magnificent first impression on Freya. The orange-brick facade of the bookshop looks storybook charming, blanketed with yellow climbing roses and curlicued gold lettering on the windowpanes that hinted at the wonders within.
The girls' gazes follow the floor-tofficeiling bookshelves wrapping around the walls and old-fashioned wooden gliding ladders that remind everyone of the enchanting library in Beauty and the Beast. Freya knows they pick up on the feeling of magic coursing throughout the shop, from the rich polish of the cherrywood shelves and the inviting green glow of the banker's lamps adorning the quad of antique study carrels used by readers and writers seeking bookish ambience and cozy vibes.
"I told you coming here was a good idea," says the younger girl in a triumphant tone. "Browsing books is way better than waiting around trying to catch a glimpse of Taft Bamber filming. They cordoned off that part of the street, anyway."
"Sure, books are great, but we have bookshops back home. Only LA has the Taft Bamber."
Taft Bamber isn't just any Hollywood actor. He's the star of last decade's cult classic Once Bitten, the guy Freya's been thirsting after ever since she was a teenager writing angsty fanfiction well into dawn. While most of her friends credit teachers and authors as the reason they became writers, Freya's a little embarrassed to admit that for her, it was Taft.
She's always wanted to write books that made readers feel the way his characters made her feel: Magically transported. Swept away. Believing in happy endings and epic love triumphing over all.
But Freya isn't fangirling-she's freaking out. Because Taft Bamber is filming right down the street.
Which wouldn't be a big deal, except...
He also happens to be dating Mandi Roy, Freya's doppelgänger.
The girls haven't seemed to notice her yet, so Freya leaves them to browse, her writer's mind conjuring up dozens of hypotheticals, worst-case scenarios in which she runs into Taft on the street and he recognizes her as a dead ringer for his girlfriend.
She counts backward from one hundred. By the time she hits fifty, her heartbeat and anxiety still haven't steadied. She knows Stori would scold her for not greeting the customers—after she was done scolding her for not putting on her name tag—and that she really should ask them if they're looking for something in particular, but hearing Taft's name has rattled her.
Both girls are eyeing her and whispering furiously as they approach. The younger teen immediately asks, "Hey, do you know where I can find the gays-in-space graphic novel that's all over BookTok? Sorry, I forgot the title."
"I told you, she doesn't work-" the older girl begins, but her sister shushes her.
Freya grins. She's so glad Stori let her set up a trending-on-TikTok book display; her friend Hero's book has been selling like hotcakes. "I know exactly the book you mean. It's right over there."
While the girl wanders off in that direction, the older girl gives Freya an apologetic smile. "Thanks. Sorry about my sister. So embarrassing she didn’t recognize you. I tried telling her that you don’t work here." Without missing a beat, she asks, "Killing time while you wait for your boyfriend?"
Mildly offended that anyone would think that’s the only reason to be in a bookshop, Freya gives her an unsure smile. Her fingers self-consciously fly to her babydoll camisole, wishing she’d worn her nametag this morning.
Before she can say anything, the younger girl rushes over clutching novels to her chest. "I found it!" she squeals. "I can’t believe it’s autographed! And I also found this in the bargain bin!" She thrusts one of the books to her sister.
Freya glances down at it. It’s her book. With a bright yellow bargain sticker plastered on the cover that reads 50% off!
Mortification sears her neck, making her hot and sweaty. That’s where Cliff thought her books should go.
"This was one of my faves." The older teen idly flips through the pages, reaching Freya’s glossy picture on the back flap.
Be cool, Freya, be cool. Pretend that you get recognized every day and this hasn’t made your day.
Freya’s heart cartwheels in her chest. "Oh my god, really?"
"Yeah. I re-read it, like, a million times." The girl tears her gaze away from the pages and hesitantly gestures at Freya with her phone. "You’re probably sick of people asking you all the time, but could we get a picture together?”
This hasn’t happened to her in years. Forget making her day, it’s made her entire month.
"Absolutely," Freya says, trying and failing at nonchalance. Talking to one of her readers is amazing, and totally makes up for the conversation between Emma and Cliff she overheard this morning. She hasn’t even had any fan mail all year. Maybe she isn’t a has-been, after all. "Do you want me to sign the book for you?"
"No, that’s okay." The girl tosses it on the nearest shelf. "Someone can put it back in the bin later."
Stunned, Freya follows the trajectory with wide eyes. It takes her a moment to connect what she saw with the casual dismissal, and when she does, it punches through her mind like fog.
"You’re nicer than I thought you would be," the older teen comments. "'Sources' close to you always make you out to be a diva."
Um, what? Freya stares at both girls in confusion. "Pardon?"
"Mom! Can you come take our picture?" The older girl flashes Freya a grin. "My friends won’t believe that I met the real Mandi Roy without a photo. This is seriously so unreal."
Freya’s stomach feels scooped out. "Yeah. Unreal."
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