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The Romantic Agenda

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One of...
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Joy is in love with Malcolm.
But Malcolm really likes Summer.
Summer is in love with love.
And Fox is Summer’s ex-boyfriend.

Thirty, flirty, and asexual Joy is secretly in love with her best friend Malcolm, but she’s never been brave enough to say so. When he unexpectedly announces that he's met the love of his life—and no, it's not Joy—she's heartbroken. Malcolm invites her on a weekend getaway, and Joy decides it’s her last chance to show him exactly what he’s overlooking. But maybe Joy is the one missing something…or someone…and his name is Fox.

Fox sees a kindred spirit in Joy—and decides to help her. He proposes they pretend to fall for each other on the weekend trip to make Malcolm jealous. But spending time with Fox shows Joy what it’s like to not be the third wheel, and there’s no mistaking the way he makes her feel. Could Fox be the romantic partner she’s always deserved?

ISBN-13: 9780593336632

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Publication Date: 04-12-2022

Pages: 336

Product Dimensions: 5.46(w) x 8.19(h) x 0.83(d)

Claire Kann is the author of several novels and an award-winning online storyteller. In her other life she works for a non-profit you may have heard of where she daydreams like she’s paid to do it. She loves cats and is obsessed with horror media (which makes the whole being known for writing contemporary love stories a little weird, tbh). Find more stories and random anecdotes on her website.

Read an Excerpt



Dreams are such strange things to have and to hold.

They can be as big as wanting to be the next Naomi Campbell-the bougie-on-a-budget version. As outrageous as hoping to find true love in a seven-billion-person haystack. Or even as innocuous as hitting that fabled Inbox Zero before the end of the workday.

Forty-seven emails to go.

Joy doesn't know what happened. One second, she was wasting on-the-clock time by searching for and deleting junk email, and the next, she'd become intensely obsessed with seeing the number in the red notification bubble drop lower and lower and lower . . .

Her intercom beeps, breaking her concentration. "Joy?"

"This is, and you're bothering me," she answers playfully, holding the phone between her ear and shoulder to keep her hands free. Forty-three emails now.

"It's Meg. Do you think you could come to my office for a second?" Her voice sounds too high and strained.

Joy frowns, but says, "Be right there."

Down the hall and five seconds away, Megan sits at her desk, face crumpled in despair as she stares at a pile of papers. Her office is a mirror image of Joy's-from the slate gray pair of chairs for guests to the corny-as-hell inspirational wall art. Most employees at Red Warren added personal touches to make the space theirs. Megan brought in her adorable cross-stitch creations, displaying them everywhere.

Hanging on to the door jamb, Joy says, "You rang, my dear?"

"I did." She looks up-her hazel eyes dominate her light brown face, with her patchy freckles coming in a close second. As if she isn't already cute enough, loose brunette curls cascade over her shoulders like a Rapunzel in training. "Is that a new outfit?"

Joy twirls into the room, ending in a pose. "New-ish." She'd bought the chic olive green pantsuit-flared high-waisted slacks and sleek blazer, both tailored to perfection, and paired with a tasteful plaid crop top-a few months ago, but this is the first time she's wearing it to work.

"Special occasion?"

As far as Joy is concerned, fashion is life, but Megan clocked the situation correctly. Her hopes are sky-high for something about to go down, most likely in the next hour. It's why she abruptly decided to devote her immediate future to securing Inbox Zero.

Approximately sometime around two hours, thirty-seven minutes, and twenty-four seconds ago, her focus had shattered from anticipation after her boss, Malcolm, sent a short email.

He asked if she had plans for the holiday on Monday.

He hinted about clearing everything from her calendar for Friday and the following Tuesday.

He needed to talk to her about something important.

"Hopefully?" Joy answers. It's a miracle her heart hadn't spontaneously combusted after she finished reading the email because her brain moved at the speed of light, jumping to the only possible conclusion: her time has finally come.

A reluctant laugh bursts through Megan's stress. "Well, I'm rooting for you, whatever it is. Come look at this, please." She's holding a signed contract with some questionable language around distribution and follows it up with pictures of the product itself:a line of craft beers with an explicit NSFW label.

"Huh." Joy's eyebrows are nearly at her hairline. The image is so realistic, she can't tell if the model's 3-D or not. If she's real, despite her excellent, perky posture, she most certainly has back problems from having boobs that big and a waist that small. How she managed to hold a perfect spread-eagle side split would have been a small miracle on set.

The image slides straight past comical, bypassing artistic expression, and ends up a little too close to exploitation. Red Warren Nightclubs pushes the envelope here and there, but this kind of advertisement isn't in line with the brand.

"You approved this?" Joy asks.

"No." All the color drains from Megan's horrified face. "I was there because I was filling in for Johnny. Remember when he got sick and was out for two weeks?"

"I do."

"I remember the product they showed us. I can literally see it in my head and it's definitely not this."

Joy nods, keeping her cool. "I've always wondered if people are born with a photographic memory or if they have to develop it."

"It's eidetic memory, not photo- Oh, Joy, oh no."

Joy grins, chuckling at her brilliant pun. She isn't above doing that. Everyone teases her for laughing at her own jokes, but it isn't her fault they don't appreciate her humor.

The most important thing is to calm Megan down. This mistake isn't the end of the world. Or her job. Situations like this happen all the time on the backend because Malcolm prefers working with a smaller team he knows he can trust. When one of them is out, they band together and fill in the blank even when they're not exactly sure what they're doing.

Red Warren Nightclubs have a somewhat infamous reputation in the local industry for being the places to be and work. They meet every code and regulation, have enough staff, supervisors, and managers, and pay them well enough to avoid burnout. Everyone who works for them is the best of the best: dancers, DJs, bartenders, and security.

Red Warren the Office, however, runs with a skeleton crew in a modern office building. Megan handles all things human resources, Allie watches their money like a hawk in accounting, Nikkiee networks like a cult leader in talent and communications, and Johnny uses his keen senses in development and acquisitions. Joy fills the role of manager to an unholy amalgamation of office, operations, and finance, and at times, doubles as an executive assistant. And Malcolm is the CEO-the dreamer, the face, and the heart of the company.

Megan says, "Johnny was reviewing everything and spotted the discrepancy."

"That must have gone well."

"He was so mad, oh my god. I thought steam was going to start whistling out of his ears."

Joy laughs, and Megan continues, "But it's not just me, though. Malcolm missed it too. He was there. He reviewed the contract before I signed off on it." Her gaze is practically a laserbeam of sincerity aimed right at Joy. "It seemed like he'd been doing better lately."

Malcolm hasn't really been the same since Caroline (the Cruel) called off their wedding a year ago. A Virgo through and through, Malcolm lives and dies by planning and micromanaging every detail he can get his hands on. He likes order and precision, needs structure and control.

Joy had seen Malcolm heartbroken before-he played fast and loose with his heart on a regular basis. He's in love with love, always searching for The One, but that breakup broke him. Completely and utterly. Afterwards, he missed important meetings, left work early on the days he even bothered to show up at all, overlooked major and minor details that caused everyone headaches later. Mistakes like this contract were a dime a dozen. Red Warren survived by staying in red alert mode.

But in the past couple of months, glimpses of the real Malcolm began to break through. His focus and dedication to Red Warren returned. Missteps became less frequent, nearly disappearing. He seemed better, lighter, and happier for some reason.

Joy fidgets at her side. "He's okay. He, um, I think he might be a little distracted right now."

Everyone knew Malcolm and Joy had originally met in college. A classic story of boy sees girl first, girl meets boy but then has an immediate revelation about her sexuality and completely ignores boy for two weeks before randomly popping back up into his life. They've been best friends, for better and for worse, in sickness but mostly in health, ever since. And she's deeply in love with him.

But no one at Red Warren needs to know a single shred of truth about her feelings for Malcolm. None. Nada. Over her dead and cold body. Hers is the kind of workplace secret you take to the unemployment line after promising to keep in touch even though you know that won't happen. Because you've had and left enough jobs to know better than to make false promises.

"I had a feeling." Megan nods. "Do you know what's up?"

"I don't," Joy lies. There are perks to moonlighting as an executive assistant. All signs point to Malcolm planning something big for the weekend. "Anyway"-she gestures to the contract-"this is fine. Everything is fine. Even if I have to go old school, pay them a visit, and remind them who they're dealing with. I'll take care of it."

"Knock, knock." Malcolm stands grinning in the doorway. Tall, dark, and ever handsome-in the literal sense. None of that thinly veiled colorist propaganda. Rich brown skin, black curly hair cut short, and deep chocolate eyes.

Joy unconsciously gives him a bright smile in return, just like she always does because she can't help it. Her brain recognizes him and there's an instant hit of dopamine to all the receptors that make her happiest.

He asks, "Joy, can I borrow you for a second?"

"Wow, I am popular this afternoon," Joy jokes to quiet her sudden nerves before looking at Megan. "Consider it handled, okay?"

Back down the hall in her office, Joy sits at her desk. Unlike Megan, she hasn't bothered with personal touches, preferring to keep her office sparse and clean. The cool grays and bursts of navy blue have a soothing effect on her. Something she relies on when she's forced to hop on one too many phone calls and her daily avalanche of emails start pissing her off.

All six feet and two inches of Malcolm collapse into the chair in front of her desk with a thud. The chair and his temperamental knees are probably swearing at him in a pitch only dogs can hear. "What are you doing this weekend?"

In case she was wrong about Malcolm's intentions, Joy had made a backup plan to visit her sister, a quick ninety-minute flight away. "My usual. A little of this, a little of that."

"No, you're not."

"I'm not?"

Malcolm's grin escalates to devastating. A true weapon of mass destruction, it has an impact radius of twenty paces and a ninety-seven-percent fatality rate. He's always wielded that perfect face of his like a formerly shy and gangly boy who just discovered the right side of puberty: completely earnest and unaware of how handsome he is.

Even after all this time, it still shocks Joy how much he can affect her. A quiet thrill ripples through her bloodstream, making her heart flutter. It's happening, it's happening, it's happening.

Two weeks ago, Malcolm scheduled himself out of the office on Friday and the Tuesday after the holiday-the exact same days he asked her to clear on her schedule today. After that, Joy spotted several browser tabs open on his laptop with telltale keywords such as "hot-air balloon" and "vineyard," and catering packages from her favorite restaurant. And most damning of all, Joy always helps him with his plans, for business and personal. This time, he hasn't even mentioned a single thing about it to her.

Malcolm King-of-Grand-Romantic-Gestures Evans is about to make a comeback. And Joy has a sneaking suspicion it might finally be for her.

"Nope." He shakes his head. "Because you're going on a trip with me."

"Again?" Joy snort-laughs, playfully rolling her eyes. "Where are we going this time?"

Ever since Caroline-ageddon, Malcolm's been traveling nonstop, Joy being his companion of choice. They've driven to the Grand Canyon, watched the northern lights in Iceland, flown to remote beaches on private islands with sunsets to die for, visited museums and art shows, and attended fancy parties in skyscrapers that have no earthly business being so tall. A perpetual homebody, globetrotting has never been a dream of Joy's. But hey, if it's on someone else's wealthy dime with someone she loves, who is she to say no?

Besides, every time Malcolm asked, she was mostly shocked that he even wanted to spend time with her at all. Because according to Caroline, the main reason why she left him was . . . Joy.

"I know you figured out that I've been planning something. I can barely hide anything from you." Malcolm leans forward, locking her in his sights. No other human on the planet can make her feel like she's the center of their universe. No one has ever made Joy feel the way Malcolm does. "But I'm keeping everything close to my chest this time. I don't want anything to go wrong."

Joy frowns. "What do you mean?"

"I have this plan."

"A plan?"

"Yeah." He clears his throat. "I met someone. Summer."

A record scratch screeches in Joy's ears. "Summer?"

"We're friends. We've been hanging out for a couple of months now."

Everything suddenly feels blurry and detached, like she's watching a reflection of the moment instead of living in it. "Months?" When? How? She literally saw his calendar every day, they spent an ungodly amount of time together after work, and when they weren't together, they texted constantly. How in the hell did he squeeze a Summer into his life without her knowing?

"Two, to be exact." He laughs again. "I think there might be something there. I've been wanting to ask her out, and I'm positive she's into me, but it feels different this time."


"I don't want to just come out and ask. That's boring. I want to make her feel special, you know? So I thought: What if I planned a trip specifically for her? We'd do everything that she loves, a whole weekend in her honor, and then at the end, I'll stage a moment when it's just the two of us and I'll ask her."

This is how Malcolm, a hopeless romantic and serial monogamist, dates-he doesn't.

All his ex-partners came from their friend group. It always starts casual, hanging out and getting to know them, no pressure or pretense. Malcolm gets his patented "feeling," and one sincere heart—to-heart later they go straight from friends to being in a relationship. It's like a light switch flipping, friends to lovers so fast there should probably be a scientific formula to measure it.

Joy would know. She's witnessed the shift enough times. What's that saying? Always the bridesmaid, never the bride? That's her. By his side for ten years and he's never once made that record breaking shift with her. After the past year, after everything they've been through, she really thought-

"Joy? Are you listening to me?"

"Of course I'm not." She frowns for a second before forcing herself to smile to keep him from reading her face, which he's an expert at. He's figured out how to guess her moods with ease, so she's learned how to trick him.