The Fake Out by Sharon M. Peterson


Is that a mirror in your pocket? Because I can see myself in your pants.


The Sit-n-Eat Café was a Two Harts’ institution. It had been around forever and, like a lot of places here, it had been passed down through the family. Its current owner, Ollie Holder, had never married or had any kids of his own. He was roughly three hundred years old, and no one quite knew what would happen to the Sit-n-Eat when he passed.

“How’s the meatloaf?” I asked, hopping onto a stool at the counter. It was Friday. Friday’s special was meatloaf. Monday was fried chicken, Wednesday was brisket, and so on. If you tried to order anything else, you still got the daily special and a dirty look from Ollie.

“Good.” Ollie was a man of few words; I liked that about him.

“Do you ever think about changing things up sometimes, Ollie? What about Sushi Saturday?” I asked, to mess with him. Behind me, someone chuckled. Probably one of the handful of old men who spent their afternoons in the café.

The Sit-n-Eat opened every day from precisely ten to two. Breakfast wasn’t served. Neither was brunch or dinner. You came here for lunch. And the friendly service, of course. Despite all that, the café seemed to have a steady stream of customers such that a HELP WANTED sign hung permanently in the window.

Ollie ignored me. “One or two?”

“Two, please.”

“I expect that other one is coming, then?”

See? Isn’t he charming? He wasn’t a very tall man and with his shiny bald head, dark bushy eyebrows, and friendly disposition, he gave off very strong “get off my lawn” energy.

I grinned. “You know her name is Ali—she worked for you two summers in college, and she comes in at least three times a week.”

He shrugged and shuffled behind the partition that separated the front counter from the kitchen.

My best friend, Ali Ramos, was usually late. Although she made her own schedule as a virtual assistant, she often was last seen falling down some internet rabbit hole. Or dreaming up her latest revenge fantasy. Three months ago, after four years together, Ali’s boyfriend Alec dumped her, claiming he was tired of their long-distance relationship.

You’d think he would have known his tech-savvy ex-girlfriend could stalk him online and find out he was dating again—seventy-two hours after they broke up.

It should be noted that Ali had not taken that lying down. I bet Alec was still trying to get the smell of rotten fish out of his car and figure out how his profile and email address showed up on a “Furries Looking for Love” website.

“I love meatloaf day,” Ali said when she arrived in her “work” clothes—yoga pants, an oversized Star Trek t-shirt, her dark hair piled atop her head haphazardly—a bit sweaty from her walk.

Ali didn’t drive—refused to, actually—so she walked most places. She lived off the main strip of town and could get to most places in minutes. As a result, she was often in a permanent state of sweatiness. Texas was not a state made for walking.

With a grin, she slid onto the stool next to me. “Hit me, Ollie.”

We’d been friends since I’d moved here in the fifth grade. Ali knew all my secrets.

Well, most of my secrets.

I mean, the ones I told her about.

Ollie grunted and slid two overfull plates in front of us. Ali wasted no time in taking a generous bite of her meatloaf.

“So good,” she moaned. “This is why I love you, Ollie.”

Ollie grunted but I could have sworn his cheeks pinked as he shuffled off.

Ali stopped inhaling her lunch long enough to point at me with her fork. “Did you hear?”

“Hear what?” I asked.

She rolled her eyes. “I swear you are on another planet sometimes.”

“I am not.”

“Yes, you are. I’ll prove it. Do you know who Chris Sterns is?”

I shook my head. “Should I? Did he go to school with us?”

“There were sixty people in our class, and you were the yearbook editor. You know he didn’t go to school with us. How are we friends?”

“I think you followed me home from school one day.”

“You’re hilarious.”

I grinned. “Probably another reason we’re friends.”

Ali huffed, waving her fork between us. “I am the zany, unpredictable one in this relationship. You are the serious, responsible one. Stay in your lane.”

She wasn’t even a little bit wrong. Ali had a way of attracting trouble. It didn’t help that she had a deep sense of justice, which presented itself in creative ways. Often involving shaving cream, water balloons, lock-picking kits, prank calls, sophisticated catfishing schemes, replacing hair conditioner with glue, once a clown, that time she hired a petting zoo, and anything else that came to mind. She was kind of the MacGyver of revenge.

The lesson here: never, ever get on Ali’s hit list.

“I need that on a t-shirt.” I waved a hand across my chest. “The Serious, Responsible One.”

“Trademark forthcoming,” Ali said.

I laughed. Which was another thing I loved about her: she could make me laugh. “So, who is this Chris Sterns you speak of?”

“He’s only one of the most famous football players in the entire world.”

“So what?”

“So what? I’ll tell you so what. He’s here. Like, in Two Harts.”

I scoffed. “Why would a world-famous football player come here?”

“The word is he’s rented out the Wilson place for a few months for a little peace and quiet.”

The Wilson place didn’t belong to the Wilsons anymore. It had been bought several years ago and renovated. Now it was rented out as a vacation home. Although, why anyone would want to vacation in Two Harts, I wasn’t sure. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Two Harts. But I also hated Two Harts. It was a complicated relationship.

“Well, may he rest in peace.”

Ali gave me the stink eye. “I don’t think you fully understand the significance of Chris Sterns. Mae, he’s dead sexy.”

With a snort, I cut off a piece of meatloaf. “I thought you were giving up men.”

“Pu-lease. He is not a mere mortal. He is a god. I’m not talking about normal sexy. I’m talking People’s Sexiest Man sexy. On top of that, he’s like, a good guy. Donates to charity, visits kids in the hospital, helps out animals.” Leaning closer, she dropped her voice slightly. “There’s this one picture of him online where he is shirtless and he’s holding a pu—”

“Puppy. I’m holding a puppy,” a voice said behind us.

Ali jumped and whipped around. Her jaw moved up and down before she finally got words out. “Holy crap. It’s him. It’s you. Y-you’re Chris Sterns.”

“One and the same,” he said, a trace of humor in his words.

Something about the voice hit me strangely, like I’d heard it before. Which was ridiculous because I’m certain I would have remembered meeting a professional football player. I turned slowly and looked up, way up, past long jean-clad legs and a gray t-shirt with a faded logo of some sort on it. All the way up until I discovered a scruff-covered chin and the baseball cap pulled low to cover what I knew were eyes the color of warm hon—


He rocked back on his heels and pushed his hat back, a small smile on his lips. “Nice shirt.”

This one read Librarians Do It Better. I liked librarian t-shirts. Everyone had a weakness; this one was mine.

“Stop looking at my shirt,” I snapped.

He wasn’t doing anything wrong, per se. Except his eyes… twinkled.

I frowned. They did not twinkle. They were not honey-colored. They were normal brown eyes just like a…

“You have cow eyes,” I blurted out. Just as quickly, I slammed my mouth shut so hard my back teeth ached with it. What was wrong with me? I did not blurt things. I was calm, cool, and collected. Ali was right. She was the one who got us into trouble; I was the one who rescued us.

“Whoa,” Ali murmured. “Where did that come from?”

Chris, God of Football, pushed his cap back to reveal said eyes more fully, a glint of mischief shining. “Well, now, cows are pretty special animals.”

My back straightened, and despite what I’m sure were the flaming red cheeks only a natural redhead could produce, I tried to appear dignified. “Is that so?”

“Sure. You know they sleep over half the day, even while standing up, and they have a real good sense of smell.” He tapped his nose. “Plus, cows never like being alone. They like to have a friend to hang out with.”

“That’s a lot of facts about cows,” I said.

“Boy Scout. I got my Bovine Knowledge badge.”

“There is not a cow badge.”

“Sure is.” He smiled, big and warm with a flash of white teeth, a smile that sent a tingle of awareness down my spine.

I scowled, starting to understand why Ali had been singing his praises.

“Also, a Goat Call badge, a Famous Barns of America badge, and a Zombie Apocalypse Preparedness badge.”

Ali slugged me in the shoulder. “I thought you said you didn’t know who he was.”

“He was sleeping in my library yesterday.”

Ali laughed, having recovered from her initial shock. “Dude, I bet you got in trouuuble.”

He held out his hands, grinning. A dimple flashed. I hadn’t noticed the dimple. It was disturbingly distracting. “Hey now, I was resting my eyes.”

With a harrumph, I crossed my arms and was about to reply when yet another voice interrupted me.

“Ladies, I see you’ve met Chris.”

I growled. Yes. An actual growl. If every supervillain joined forces, found a way to combine all their DNA and used it to create a mutant baby in a lab, then gave it dark-blond hair and the cold, dead heart of a politician, it would be this man—Peter Stone.

Once upon a time, I’d thought him handsome and charming with his swoopy hair, broad shoulders and commanding presence. I’d thought the little paunch he’d developed after college and even his penchant for cowboy boots and too-tight Wranglers were all adorable. I’d even dreamed of marrying him and having his little Wrangler-wearing babies. I’d tried to give a relationship with Peter a real chance. In the beginning, it had been nice, fun even. But like most everything that started out good in my life, it hadn’t lasted; he hadn’t lasted.

Now I hoped one day he got lost in the woods and a pack of ravenous coyotes devoured him. I guess Ali wasn’t the only one with revenge fantasies.

Actually, this was a good thing. Seeing him reminded me that pretty packages often have ugly insides.

“I thought it was meatloaf day, not meathead,” Ali said. She was a good and loyal friend so she hated Peter, too.

“Alicia, I see you’ve been working on your grown-up words,” Peter said, clearly taking his life in his hands.

Ali arched a single dark eyebrow, already planning how she’d make Peter eat those words.

“We met yesterday,” Chris said to Peter, but his next words were for me. “Thanks for book recommendation. I did finally figure out where that Duke put his hand.”

“You’re welcome,” I said in a syrupy-sweet voice. “I’m just glad to know you can read.”

He leaned a hip against the counter next to me, that dang twinkle back in his eye. He was enjoying this. Which was irritating.

“Maybe we could have ourselves a book club? I’ll pick the next one though.” Then he winked. See? Irritating.

“Let me guess. Book Club badge?”


“Maebell, I’m glad I saw you,” Peter cut in. “I had a question about the library budget and hoped we could find a time to talk about it.”

“Uh-oh,” Ali whispered.

Did I mention Peter held the auspicious title of Mayor of Two Harts, Texas? He took up the mantle from his father, who took over from his father. I know a mayor is an elected official, but when no one’s willing to run against you, it was basically a dictatorship.

“Maebell?” Chris said, drawing the word out. “That’s cute.”

“I am not cute,” I snapped. Which was true. Puppies were cute. Tiny doll furniture made to scale was cute. Ali was cute in a messy, nerdy way that a surprising number of men found attractive. At least until they got on her bad side.

Peter cleared his throat and my eyes jerked back to glare at him. “What is it you want to talk about?”

It had been Peter who’d convinced the city council to slash my budget so drastically last year. ’Cause he was a jerk like that.

“I have ideas about how we could cut some corners,” he said in his cheerful, baby-kissing politician voice. “Turns out the new football stadium is going to cost a little more than we planned, and we’re asking everyone to chip in a little.”

“You’re joking, right?” I said.

“Let’s not do this now. You think about it. I’ll have Maria call and set up an appointment.” He waved at someone over my head. “Ed, how are you? Had a question for you.”

As I watched him walk away, my fists curled at my sides. Maybe he could get lost in the forest but with honey in his pocket and find a bunch of really ambitious bears.

“You gonna eat that?” Chris was now sitting on the stool beside me, looking at my meatloaf with interest.

I pushed the plate his way. I wasn’t hungry anymore. “No, go ahead.”

Ali shoulder-bumped me. “You okay?”

“I hate him.”

“I know. I hate him, too.” See? Good and loyal friend. “Anytime you want to take action, you let me know. I already have a few ideas.”

“Ali,” I said on a sigh.

“Do you know what a glitter bomb is?” Excitement sparked in her eyes.

“He hasn’t changed much,” Chris said. Ollie brought him over a glass of sweet tea, and he nodded his thanks.

“You know him?” I asked.

“Played football in college together. He was a blowhard then too.” He dug into the meatloaf with abandon. “This is good.”

Ali leaned forward to see around me. “Is it true you’re staying in town?”

Chris nodded. “For now.”


He set his fork down and took a long pull of his tea. “I have a little work to do in Houston. Thought I’d check it out.”

A glance at my phone told me I needed to get back to work. Although the library closed early on Fridays, I had to run home and change before the forty-five-minute drive into Houston. For my second job. The one I needed time to psych myself out for.

I stood and gathered up my things. Ollie slid a to-go carton across the counter.

“I didn’t order this,” I said.

“You need to eat.” He walked away before I could thank him. Ollie was good people.

“I’ll call you later,” I said to Ali.

She nodded and scooted over to my stool to sit next to Chris, eager to get closer to the sun, I guess.

“Have fun in Two Harts,” I said to Chris.

I was halfway to the door when he called out. “Oh, hey, Maebell, cowboys or pirates?”


“For our book club? Cowboys or pirates?” He grinned. “You know what? Never mind. I’ll surprise you.”