Some of the most vibrant romances I’ve ever read happen to be set in New York City—a city of dreams and limitless possibilities—and Christina Lauren’s latest offering is a ravishing salute to the city itself and its musical theatre scene. Set amidst the shimmering lights of Broadway, this is a story of two people who did everything backwards on their way to falling in love—a sham marriage coming even before their first kiss—but it’s also a story of new beginnings, of altruism, of family, and of finding love in the most unlikely of places. A novel to read and re-read, told in Christina Lauren’s confident and engaging voice, this is the kind of book that one devours in a single sitting, and then goes right back to the beginning to make sure they haven’t missed anything.
From the moment twenty-five-year-old Holland Bakker first heard the stirring strains of an acoustic guitar spilling from a busy subway platform, she found herself smitten with the talented busker and his playing. Week after week, she would pass by that station every time she knew he would be there, her infatuation with the mysterious musician leading her to go as far as taking subway trips she didn’t need to take just to hear him play, bent over his guitar, lost in his music. So when one of the most popular productions on Broadway loses its lead violinist and the show’s musical director—Holland’s uncle—begins a desperate search for a replacement, Holland realises that she knows of someone who would be simply perfect for the job.
“Wait. Wait. An idea is forming in my brain.”
“He’s exactly what you’re describing. You’ve never heard him, but trust me—he is.”
As hundreds of other unappreciated musicians in New York City, Calvin McLoughlin has spent the past four years of his life hoping to land his big break, while busking on subway platforms and doing any random gigs that came his way in order to make a living. So when the esteemed musical director of one of the best known Broadway shows asks him to audition for them, the young Irishman jumps at the opportunity to showcase his talent, knowing all too well that his expired visa status renders him unable to accept a job.
“The answer is obvious, isn’t it? Just have Holland marry the guy. They’ve been dating for months in her head, anyway. Two birds, one stone.”
Desperate to help her beloved uncle any way she can, Holland devises a plan that would allow Calvin to be in the show and stay in the country legally, and before anyone has a chance to change her mind, she marries a perfect stranger whose name she’s known for less than a week.
“So we’d be married, and I’d get to be in the show?” he asks. “Just like that?”
“I think so. You’d have your dream, and Robert would have his new musician.”
“I’d also have a beautiful wife. What would you have? Other than a famous Broadway musician husband, that is.”
He thinks I’m beautiful? I hold his gaze from across the table, not blinking, barely breathing. “I’d get to help my uncle. I owe him so much.”
And so begins a marriage of convenience between two people who essentially know very little about one another, getting to know each other while pretending to be in love for the whole world to see. Somewhere along the way, however, their fake marriage becomes very real for them both, a tender romance blossoming between them and catching everyone by surprise. But while Calvin’s career skyrockets overnight, Holland begins to realise that she’s been living on the sidelines of her own life for as long as she can remember, finding value in being valuable to others rather than pursuing her own true passions, and while she watches the man she loves chase and fulfil his dreams, she becomes more and more aware that she cannot see her own future at all.
I have a temporary job, a temporary marriage. Will anything ever be permanent? What the hell am I going to do with my life?
When the fragile trust between them is suddenly threatened by secrets and omissions that put everything they’ve built into question, two strangers who’ve been pretending to know each other well very quickly realise that they might not know one another at all.
I wouldn’t even be in love with me. How can I believe him when he says he is?
In Holland we find a kind, selfless, endearing heroine whose struggle with self-confidence and lack of purpose we can all identify with at some point in our lives, and by remaining in her head throughout the entire story, our connection to her never wavers. That one-sided point of view, however, is also what hindered my understanding of the hero at times, his actions and motivations often difficult to grasp. Their delightful love story is compelling nonetheless, so beautifully multilayered and full of feeling, and Christina Lauren’s bouncy prose holds us captive until the very end.
“I don’t like to think of you playing a side part in your story. You’ve suddenly become a very large part of mine. And I yours. No? Why not make it epic?”
I roll over onto my side, right into a solid, warm body. It’s black all around us, and the darkness only amplifies his quiet moan. Against me, Calvin is completely bare; we both went to bed clothed, but somehow I ended up back out in the living room—naked—and the unbelievable heat of him seems endless in the tiny sofa bed.
The springs creak when he rolls to face me, nibbling a path from my shoulder to my jaw. “Well this is unexpected,” he says.
I want to ask him how long I’ve been out here, but he wipes away all organized thought, leaving only a trail of fire behind as his hand slides up from my hip, over my breast to my neck.
“You didn’t want to fuck in the bed?” he asks, speaking into a kiss against my jaw. “I would have come to you.”
He shifts away just enough to let me explore with my palms: the solid expanse of his chest, the hair on his navel, and lower, to where he’s hard for me, shifting into my palm when I curl a fist around him.
Like this he moves for a few tight breaths, sucking at my neck, cupping my breasts in his rough hands. But every inch of my skin feels tight and aching—I need him over me, inside.
“I want . . .”
His mouth hovers over my nipple, teeth bared. “Want?”
I try to blame my impatience on the fact that it’s the mid- dle of the night, and I’ve somehow wandered into Calvin’s bed, and he’s totally fine with it—I don’t want to lose a single second of this by either of us overthinking it. So I urge him over me, staring up at him in the dark.
“Did you get enough dinner?” he asks, kissing from my breast slowly up to my neck.
I don’t know why he’s joking about the steak right now, but it doesn’t even matter because I can feel him press against me, and then he shifts his hips and he’s sliding inside with a moan that vibrates against my throat.
The stretch of him inside me is so new, so unexpected, that I cry out and he turns his head, covering my open mouth with his. He says something I can’t make out, but it’s prob- ably less about the words themselves than it is about my in- ability to process beyond the feel of him sliding in, and back out of me.
It seems unreal that he’s here, moving, pulling my legs around his waist. He’s not quiet—he lets out a gust of pleasure with every thrust, and I don’t think I’ve ever been this wild: pushing up into him, digging my nails in his back, begging him for faster, for harder.
Then he’s behind me—how, it was so fast—and I feel the sharp sting of his hand, the satisfied grunt he makes when I cry out. And then I’m over him, his hands on my breasts, fingers drawing maddening circles around the peaks.
“Are you close?” His voice is tight with restraint.
“Fuck. Good.” His hands come to my hips, and he starts working himself up into me, hurried and deeper. “It feels so good.”
And it does. My skin feels staticky, my spine is tight with the spiral of pleasure.
“Jump on me,” he groans.
“. . . Jump?”
“Rabbit,” he growls. “Like in a field. Carrots.”
With a gasp, I startle awake into the darkness of my bed- room. The sheets are a tangle at my feet. My door is still closed, and I am completely alone with my hand down my pants.
Bolting upright, I lean forward, listening for any sound of activity outside the door. There’s a quiet rustle, a squeak of the sofa bed springs. According to my clock, it’s 1:48 a.m. Is Calvin awake? Oh my God, did I wake him up by moaning? Was I loudly . . . masturbating?
I want to throw myself off the fire escape outside my window. This is only the first night having Calvin outside my room, and already I’m having sex dreams about him.
I am so fucking doomed.