In this third book of the Once Upon a Con series, Rosie Thorne is feeling stuck—on her college application essays, in her small town, and on that mysterious General Sond cosplayer she met at ExcelsiCon. Most of all, she’s stuck in her grief over her mother’s death. Her only solace was her late mother’s library of rare Starfield novels, but even that disappeared when they sold it to pay off hospital bills.
On the other hand, Vance Reigns has been Hollywood royalty for as long as he can remember—with all the privilege and scrutiny that entails. When a tabloid scandal catches up to him, he’s forced to hide out somewhere the paparazzi would never expect to find him: Small Town USA. At least there’s a library in the house. Too bad he doesn’t read.
When Vance’s and Rosie’s paths collide, sparks do not fly. But as they begrudgingly get to know each other, their careful masks come off—and they may just find that there’s more risk in shutting each other out than in opening their hearts.
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Whenever you think your love life sucks, just remember that I fell in love with a boy whose name I didn’t know.
Let’s be clear: I didn’t mean to fall in love. It just sort of happened, the way falling usually does. You trip on something you didn’t see and, if you’re me, you lose your heel and go stumbling into a stranger at the ExcelsiCon Ball who just so happened to be holding a glass of neon-yellow Galactic Twist punch that goes . . . absolutely everywhere.
And so now the front of your skirt is drenched with the sticky yellow Kool-Aid that looks more like, well, pee than Galactic Twist, and there isn’t a bathroom in sight. With one glance, I could already tell my cosplay was ruined. So was the other person’s cosplay, but he didn’t seem to care as he stumbled on.
He wasn’t who I fell in love with, by the way.
He’s just the reason I met him.
If I didn’t have my stupid mask on I probably would’ve seen the prop sword lying on the ground. Who puts a prop sword on the ground in the middle of the dance floor, anyway?
Apparently, with a quick look around, a person cosplaying as Cloud Strife did just before he broke down the Electric Slide.
I looped back for my heel, grabbed it off the ground before someone could kick it away, and left the dance floor to see if I could salvage my outfit. If I didn’t love my friends so much, I would’ve just stayed in my hotel room and watched reruns of The Great British Bake Off. I was still contemplating the possibility, honestly.
Quinn and Annie had told me the ball would be good for me. They told me it would take my mind off what had happened this past summer. They told me . . . well, I guess it didn’t really matter what lies those lying liars peddled to get me to come out of my hotel room. What mattered was the universal question:
How early was too early to leave a ball?
“You don’t want to miss the magic, do you?” Annie had asked as she pulled me out of the room toward the elevators. “Last year we saw Jessica Stone—the Amara!—stand on a food truck to Romeo and Juliet her girlfriend. And the year before that, Darien—Darien Freeman! Carmindor himself!—proclaimed his undying love for Geekerella! What if this is your year?”
I’d never been to ExcelsiCon before—it always seemed too big and too loud—but I knew that Quinn and Annie were trying to get me to have as much fun as I could, because the last year has sucked.
It’s sucked so terribly hard.
“Well, last I checked, Darien Freeman’s taken,” I had replied. “And so is Jess Stone.”
“Yes, but look across this great expanse, Rosie.” Quinn looped their arm into my free one, and they led me toward the hall balcony where, thirty floors below, the ExcelsiCon Ball began to come to life. “Do you smell that possibility?”
“All I smell is vom and con stink,” I replied.
Yet I caved, because wouldn’t it have been wonderful to find Prince Charming at the ball? They knew I was a romantic at heart—my mom fed me a healthy dose of fairy tales and romance novels when I was little—and they knew I was a sucker for every rom-com known to humankind, and so they tempted me with lies of Happily Ever After.
After all, if anyone was to find love somewhere romantic, why couldn’t it be me? Why not this year? Why not make something memorable to lessen the pain in my chest?
Still, though, I should’ve listened to my gut telling me to just stay in the hotel room. Because not five minutes after Quinn and Annie dragged me down to the ExcelsiCon Ball, I had lost them in the masses of people.
There were just so many.
I tried looking for them—they were hard to miss, dressed as floating glowing neon goldfish (“We’re the snacks that smile back!” Quinn had said with a wink). I had put together a closet cosplay that I found in my, well, closet—an unassuming black crop top and a white skirt, and an empty shot glass around my neck.
. . . A shot in the dark, get it?
No one ever does.
It only took another few minutes for me to become absolutely overwhelmed, run into a Nox King who spilled his Galactic Twist all over my cosplay, and bail from the ball. I returned to the elevators and squeezed into the first one available, damned which floor. To my utter chagrin, it only took me up to the tenth floor, and I let myself out to escape the smell of sweat and hairspray clogging the elevator.
The tenth floor was mostly a lobby overlooking the chaos below. It was quiet here, at least. Much quieter than I expected, given the thumping bass down below. There wasn’t a chance I was getting back into those elevators anytime soon—it looked like the one I just came out of broke on the fifteenth floor, and the other two were . . . well, to put it politely, not in the best shape.
Great, I guess I wasn’t going back to my room after all. And I was stuck in a damp skirt.
There was a door that opened to a small outside area, and I let myself out. The night air was crisp, and warm. I sucked in a lungful of fresh air to calm my nerves. There were only a few people on the garden balcony—a couple dressed as Pokémon making out in the corner, and a guy leaning against the balcony rail.
Oh, I thought as I walked up beside him to enjoy the view, he’s got a nice butt.
Not that it really mattered. I leaned against the railing and tried to see the damage to my outfit in the low rooftop light, patting down the stains with the wad of napkins I stole from the drinks kiosk on the way here. For once, I was happy that everyone was downstairs dancing the night away to a dubstep version of “The Imperial March,” because here it was so nice and quiet—so quiet my ears rang.
My skirt was ruined, that much I could guess. I just wanted to go back to the hotel room and get out of these heels and take a hot shower to get all of the con grime off me. There was a book in my suitcase just calling my name—the new Starfield: Resonance companion novel.
I’d rather be saving the galaxy with the insufferably kind Carmindor than be on this balcony praying for the night to end already.
“A shot in the dark, right?”
The voice startled me.
I glanced up to the guy, because it certainly wasn’t the couple playing tongue hockey who asked me. He was unnervingly tall, but then again I was known for two things—being stubborn, and being short. “What?” I asked.
He motioned to my costume. He wore a very well-put- together General Sond costume, complete with beautiful long white-blond hair and a crooked smile, and a mask that covered just enough of his face to make him look alluring and absolutely unidentifiable. “Your cosplay,” he followed up. He had a strange accent. I couldn’t place it—but it sort of sounded like those fake American accents you sometimes hear on TV from actors who are very clearly not American. It was too hometown, too clean. “A shot in the dark?”
I glanced down at my costume. “Technically I’m cosplaying the title of the thirty-seventh book in the extended-universe saga of Starfield, A Shot in the Dark by Almira Ender.”
His eyebrows jerked up over his mask. “Oh, well, I stand corrected.”
“It’s a really deep cut, though,” I quickly added.
“Oh, I do see it,” he replied, cocking his head. He pointed down to the hem of my skirt. “The little Starfield logo trim at the bottom. That’s a very nice touch.”
“Of course. There’s thought to it.”
“I just didn’t have the money for a nice costume,” I replied, motioning to his very, very nice costume, and then realized my mistake. “Oh God, that sounded like an insult! I didn’t mean it that way, I promise. I’m just, you know, saving up for college and all, and—” I forced myself to stop talking, I babbled when I got nervous.
“No, no, I didn’t take it that way at all!” he said, though his voice was full of thinly disguised laughter. He leaned closer to me—just a little—enough to whisper, “You want to know a secret? This costume isn’t mine. It’s for my job, so they let me borrow it for the night.”
“Well, this weekend.”
“That must be quite a cool job, then, if you have to dress as Sond for it.”
He smiled again. “Yeah. So, did you come out to escape the socializing, too?”
“I know I’m going to sound boring, but I’m not really big on parties,” I said.
“That does sound boring.”
“I was agreeing with you!” He laughed. “I’ve never known anything else. Parties, socializing, loud music, and lots of people. It’s a place I can get lost in.”
“Yeah, I hate that feeling.”
“I love it,” he replied, closing his eyes. “It’s like being invisible.”
I didn’t know what to say, but I wanted to reach out and touch his shoulder. We barely knew each other, but it felt like he had just admitted something to me that he’d never told anyone else before. Maybe he realized that, too, because his shoulders went rigid. I stilled my hand to keep it by my side.
“What’s home for you?” he asked.
I gave a one-shouldered shrug. Home, to me? If I was going to scare him away, I might as well start with the most boring part of me. “A small town and a quiet library, where sunlight slants through the window just right, making everything golden and soft and . . .” I trailed off, because I hadn’t thought about that in a long time. Not since the funeral. “My mom used to call them golden afternoons.”
“That sounds magical.”
“It is. You should visit. Maybe I can tempt you to the dark side with hot chocolate and a good book.”
He smiled, and there was a delicious dare tucked into the edges. “That sounds like a challenge.”
“Oh no,” I replied, returning that devil-may-care smile, imagining what he would look like in a certain slant of golden light, curled into a wingback chair with my favorite book. “It’s a promise.”
“I can’t wait, then,” he said earnestly. Then something caught his eyes behind me, and I began to look over my shoulder when he said, “This might sound a little forward, but would you want to go for a walk? With me?” He outstretched his hand.
I thought about Quinn and Annie dancing the night away, and about the book waiting for me back in my hotel room, and how improbable this was, and for the first time in my life—I pushed those thoughts aside.
I took his hand, because this moment felt like a dandelion fluff on the wind—there one moment, walking the streets of Atlanta and eating Waffle House, and talking on the rooftop of one of the hotels until the sun rose and all of the cosplayers down below were stumbling their way home, the memory so visceral I can still smell the strange scent of his cologne, lavender mixed with oak, and then, well— Gone.