Owen Burnett planned on a quiet, easygoing Christmas, hanging out with his best friend and neighbor, Gabby Michaelson. So when his mom pressures him to come home for the holidays, he tells a little white lie…that he’s spending the holidays with his new girlfriend. But when his family shows up unexpectedly, Owen pulls the best friend card and asks Gabby to play his fake girlfriend.
Gabby’s been hopelessly in love with her best friend Owen for what feels like forever, but playing his “fake” girlfriend when the entire boisterous Burnett clan visits is easier said than done. The more she tries to deny the attraction between them, the more obvious their chemistry becomes. But even though she’s not the only one feeling it, putting their friendship on the line is a risk she can’t take.
Owen thought he’d find Gabby curled up on the oversized chair in his bedroom, sketchbook in hand. He had looked forward to seeing her there like that, he realized. Instead, she was sitting in the middle of his bed, in a pair of pajama shorts and a tank top, laughing at whatever album she seemed to be flipping through.
“Hey,” he said, ignoring the warmth crowding his chest. He shut the door behind him and arched an eyebrow when she slapped the album shut and put it behind her back. No. Mom wouldn’t have…
“Hi.” She scooted back on the bed, pushing the dark blue album, which he now recognized, under the pillow.
“Gabby. What are you doing? You were supposed to be sketching,” he said, advancing.
If it was possible to look down her nose at him while she looked up at him, she managed. “Is that what I was supposed to be doing? I didn’t know I had to confirm my activities with you.”
His legs hit the bed and Gabby’s body tensed, like she was ready to spring from the mattress. With the album, most likely.
His heart dove into his stomach. “Did my mother give you that?”
Her smile started slow then took over her entire face. Her eyes shone with it. She nodded.
Oh, Mom so did. He thrust out his hand. “Give it.”
“Oh, no. It’s too good. There are actual bath shots, O. And the time you dressed up as your sister. And there’s one shot of you learning how to pee standing up,” she said. Her words came out slightly muffled as her hand shot to her mouth to cover the fit of laughter.
He launched himself at the album, but she tugged it away just in time and he landed on top of her. The album went flying to the floor and Gabby laughed, twisting in his arms, trying to get away.
“You think that’s funny?”
She nodded. “I really do. I think I’d like to do a new series. Owen: the younger years. From print to paint.” Gabby’s body convulsed in laughter. She struggled with him as he tickled her and tried to get her to promise never to do such a thing. It didn’t take long for her to cave.
“Okay. I promise. Stop. I promise.”
“Say ‘I swear on my favorite set of brushes to erase all memories of what I saw in Owen’s baby book,’” he said, pinning her hands above her head.
She bit her lip, considering. “Owen, I will never, in my life, forget what I saw in those pictures. In fact, in times of trouble or sadness, I may purposely recall them,” she said. He tickled again, his fingers grazing her breast accidentally on the way up her arm. She squealed. “Okay. Okay.” He paused. “I swear on my favorite set of brushes to never use the images I will forever hold dear as the subject of any of my artwork. Ever.”
Owen stopped fighting his grin. He groaned as he collapsed to the side of her, letting her hands go. “Good enough. I can’t believe she gave you that.”
A sweet, friends-to-lovers (holiday) romance!
Owen and Gabby have been best friends for two years, since a few months after they both moved into Kendrick Place, when Owen got the apartment that Gabby, an amateur artist, coveted for its views, windows, and wood floors. When Owen comes up with the suggestion that she pretend to be his fake girlfriend while his family is in town for the holidays (he’d previously told his mother that he’d found “the one” in the hopes of getting her off his back about finding a girlfriend/wife/giving her grandchildren) and offers an apartment switch as incentive, Gabby swallows her misgivings and agrees.
Of course you know before you even get past the first chapter how that is going to go, so really you’re reading the book for the journey as much as the destination. And in this instance, the journey is enjoyable–as long as you can look past a few questionable bits. For example, I get why Owen’s mother, father, elderly aunt, and sister decide to bring Christmas to Owen since he wasn’t going to come home for the holiday. But why do they decide to stay with him in his two bedroom apartment (and only one of those bedrooms actually has a bed) instead of getting rooms in a nearby hotel? It seems throwing our hero and heroine into closer, more awkward quarters is the only real reason. Their friends-to-lovers romance is a delicious troupe–add in the fact that Gabby’s been secretly in love with him for most of their friendship and he’s totally oblivious (squee!)–so much potential. All good things. BUT almost the second she agrees to his whole plot, Owen suddenly realizes that Gabby’s a woman. And desirable. And okay, the whole having-your-eyes-opened-to-the-truth bit is a staple to the troupe, but there really isn’t any catalyst for it here beyond him asking her to be his fake girlfriend. He does, and wham! he notices that she’s a gorgeous woman and he’s actually attracted to her. Um, okay…
Then there’s all the background noise. On the one hand, Owen’s other friend Brady and the mysterious Wyatt (whom Gabby befriends) engender enough interest to make me hope they’re getting their own stories, since they all live in the series’ titular Kendrick Place. On the other hand, the side plots with slimy apartment manager Jake, the broken into storage spaces, the missing box, and the almost-broken-into mailboxes feel neither fully developed nor completely resolved in the end. Will they be further addressed in later series books? Maybe. It’s hard to say, and those bits make the story feel a somewhat unfinished.
And, argh–where are Owen’s glasses on that cover? Sigh…
Still, Owen and Gabby are sweet together, and their developing romance makes for some akwardly cute moments. Though this story wasn’t without its flaws, it has accomplished its job of making me anticipate future books in the series.
Rating: 3 1/2 stars / B-
I voluntarily reviewed an Advance Reader Copy of this book.
Jody Holford is a multi-published author who has a soft spot for happily ever after. So much so, she tattooed the words on her arm. She’s a mom and a wife, a friend, sister, daughter, teacher, and book-lover. Her stories have a little bit of heat and a lot of heart. And maybe, some swoon-worthy moments that will make you smile.