by Cheri Ritz
The only commitment Mara Antonini ever made was to her career on the Vegas stand-up scene. Putting romance on the back burner, she’s long accepted the role of ‘the player’ among her friends. Landing a gig as the emcee of a fund-raiser seemed like the perfect way to get some positive career exposure. If she happened to make a new friend with benefits along the way, so be it. She didn’t count on the stunning redhead representing a rival casino throwing her off her game.
All Victoria McHenry needed was a date to her grandmother’s birthday gala to keep her high-society mother off her back. But she wasn’t exactly ready to dip back into the dating pool after her last disaster of a relationship. So when she’s coerced into representing her family’s casino at a local fund-raiser, she takes it as an opportunity to find that date. Naturally she’s drawn to the charismatic comedian headlining the event.
When the women are paired up on a planning committee, Victoria proposes the Fake Date Deal: she gets her date for the soirée, and Mara gets the chance to finally shake her playgirl reputation. It’s not long before hearts and emotions tangle, and soon the women find themselves wondering if the only people they are fooling are themselves.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Is there any feeling more beautiful than being loved, accepted, and valued for who you are? The people who lift you up and hold you close may not be the ones you expect, but they will be the ones you never forget. I’ve always found an abundance of comfort in the concept of found family, and I thought about that a lot as I wrote Love’s No Joke.
I began to explore the idea of a character who has been out of the closet for some time but has continued to struggle with many of her interpersonal relationships, especially when it came to family. I wanted to show the joy and comfort that found family could provide for her, and how that could impact her life.
I wove that idea into Victoria’s storyline in Love’s No Joke. The way her new friends embrace her, protect her, and support her is a real eye opener for Victoria. It’s a kind of love she didn’t even know she had been missing in her life. She’s always thought family connections hindered her independence, but suddenly she realizes love like this makes her an even stronger individual. Readers will find my own little love letter to found family tucked between the lines of text in this book."
Bonnie A. - Love's No Joke is a well-written, quick, enjoyable contemporary romance set in Las Vegas. I mean who doesn't enjoy a story that begins with faking a relationship to prove to your friends that you're a player who can date. Not to mention, parading a date around your family to avoid being set up with every available guy because your mom refuses to admit that you're a lesbian. Great main and secondary characters with amazing chemistry. I enjoyed the story and appreciated the bond and support the circle of friends had. Overall a great read. I recommend. 4 stars.
“Let’s face it, Jenkins is losing his touch.” Mara Antonini crossed her arms and hitched her hip up onto the corner of her boss’s desk, settling in. She would not be moved until she’d been heard. “He’s a professional comedian who has a chicken crossed the road joke in his act, AND he managed to give it a homophobic twist. Then tonight he totally lashed out at that woman in the audience.”
“Hey,” Ricky Jenkins said with a frown. “She was heckling me, I responded. It’s all part of the magical Las Vegas experience.”
“You asked her if she was ‘on the rag.’ It’s not nineteen eighty-six.” She looked to Jerry, their boss, for backup, but he just sat there, his expression unimpressed, as if he was equally annoyed by Mara as he was his rogue headliner. “Who the hell even still says shit like that? It’s time for the Rothmoor to enter the twenty-first century. Yes, Las Vegas is a magical place. Everybody has a dream here, but nobody’s dream includes enduring hate speech at a comedy club.”
Mara’s dream was to secure the headliner slot for the night shows at Laffmoor, the comedy club at the Rothmoor Tower Casino. At least that was the short-term dream, with hopes that it would be a stepping-stone to a solid career in the comedy world. She had been doing the afternoon show regularly with a few warm-up slots in the evening for over a year, but as her thirtieth birthday had come and gone, she realized she needed to get her ass in gear and her career on track. She was nothing if not a work in progress, but actual progress hadn’t reared its elusive head in a long while. Mara was due to catch a break, and she’d be damned if some throwback blowhard whose act revolved around insults and snickering at others was going to be the thing that stood in her way.
“Oh.” Ricky swatted a big, meaty hand through the air dismissively. “Here we go with the dyke drama.”
“Okay, no.” Mara hopped off the desk and pointed a finger until she was close enough to poke him right in the beefy middle of his faded black T-shirt. “I can say dyke. You can’t say dyke. This is exactly what I’m talking about. It’s not edgy and it’s not funny. It’s offensive. This stuff doesn’t fly anymore. Remind me again, when were you born? Before or just slightly after fire was invented?”
“You can call me a caveman, but I can’t call you a dyke? That’s offensive.”
“Sure,” she nodded. She waited a beat, the perfect comedic timing she was known for. “It’s offensive to cavemen.”
Ricky scowled. “You know what, Mara? You better watch your—”
“Enough!” Jerry finally spoke up. “You’ve both said enough for one night. Ricky, get out of here. We’ll discuss the heckling issue later.”
“Fine by me. I don’t need to hear anymore from this bitch. We’ll talk business tomorrow. Just us men.” He slammed the office door as he left.
“And he thinks I bring the drama?” Mara stomped her foot in frustration. “That man is misogynistic and homophobic, and he smells like he took a swim in a vat of cheap cologne.”
“That is all accurate,” Jerry said rubbing his temples. “But he’s also our headliner and under contract. He might be a jerk but he’s the Laffmoor’s jerk.”
“Wonderful.” She dropped into the chair opposite Jerry. “That could be the Laffmoor’s new slogan. Let’s get T-shirts made.”
“Mara, come on. Be reasonable here. The guy made some bad choices on stage. So what? The show must go on.”
“He continually makes bad choices on stage, and you allowing him do it night after night is part of the problem.”
“I already said I’d talk to him about the incident.” Jerry wasn’t a big man like Ricky, but he had a gruff voice. It commanded attention and respect. “So, are you satisfied?”
“No. But I’m glad you asked.” She leaned back in the chair and crossed her legs. She was not satisfied and she finally had the opportunity to say something about it. “Last week when Ricky flaked on his set, you brought in an outsider to cover for him instead of bumping me up to headliner for the night. I think that was crap. You should be calling me first when something like that happens.”
Jerry blew out a sigh. “It was nothing against you. There’s not a comedy club on the strip that has a woman headliner. Maybe a guest spot, but not a resident. That’s just the way it is.”
“Well, it’s not the way it has to be. This is our chance to be trailblazers. It could set the Laffmoor apart. Come on, Jerry. Stand up for women everywhere. One small step for womankind, you know?”
“I hear you. Woman power. Pink pussy hats. I’ll take that under advisement.” He wasn’t listening to her. He was dismissing her.
Mara stood but she wasn’t ready to exit the office quite yet. “I’m serious, Jerry. If Ricky isn’t available to do the show, I should be your first call. I deserve that.”
“Mara,” He growled and ran a hand through his ash-colored hair. Mara hoped his receding hairline could take the stress. “It’s late and I still have shit to do before I can get out of here. I’ll think about it, but that’s the best I can give you.”
“I gotta say, Jerry, I don’t have a ton of faith in your thinking.” It was out of her mouth before she remembered finesse was a crucial part of any negotiation.
“Mara.” It was a bark of warning. The discussion was over.
“Fine.” She slammed the door on her way out. If it worked for Ricky, maybe it would work for her too.
Her jaw clenched tight as she marched through the casino. That son-of-a-bitch. “I’ll think about it” meant a whole hell of a lot of nothing, and they both knew it. The chime of an incoming text on her phone interrupted her annoyed thoughts and gave her angst a moment of reprieve.
Looking forward to coming next weekend.
Yeah you will! Mara smiled and hit send.
“What are you smiling like that for?” Penny Rothmoor was the picture of professionalism in her tailored black suit and turquoise blouse, her blond hair neatly pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck as she fell into step next to Mara. “Who were you texting?”
Mara wiggled her phone back into her back pocket. Her attire for the evening—ripped jeans, chunky black leather boots, and a tight-fitting black V-neck T-shirt was a stark contrast to her best friend’s. “What?” she blinked innocently, not interested in texting and telling. “No one.”
“No one my ass. I know that look. That patented ‘Mara on the prowl’ look.” Penny had started out as Assistant to the General Manager at her family’s casino after she graduated from college, and she’d worked her way up to her current position as Executive Manager. She and Mara had been best friends since college. They had been in tune like sisters for a decade. There was no hiding from each other when it came to stuff like that. “It’s a chick you’re texting. Give it up. Who?”
“It was Kat. You know. From New York.”
“Ah! The Booty Call Chef.” Penny’s eyes lit up with recognition and she nodded sagely.
“I mean, we’re friends. And she’s going to be in town next week. So we’ll probably get together.” It was no big deal.
“For a booty call.”
“Would you stop saying that?” Mara pulled a face at her, but Penny was right. Kat worked at a restaurant in New York City with a sister location in another casino on the strip. They met one day after Kat had come to the show at the Laffmoor, and they immediately hit it off. Kat flew into Vegas once every couple of months to oversee things at the restaurant, and they always tried to see each other, but neither was interested in a long-distance relationship. Instead they kept in touch and settled on a “friends with benefits” kind of thing.
“You and your women,” Penny sighed. “Don’t you ever want to settle down?”
There it was, the million-dollar question Mara’s friends had asked her again and again. All this time the answer hadn’t changed. She was much too busy getting her career in gear to get tied down in a relationship.
“Sure,” Mara shrugged. “Someday.”
“Someday, someday,” Penny singsonged with an eye roll, indicating she didn’t believe her best friend in the least. “It’s the same old story with you, Mara.”
“Give me a break,” Mara sighed. “It’s been a long night. I just came from Jerry’s office after catching Ricky Jenkins at the nine o’clock show.”
It was Penny’s turn to sigh. “Yes, I fielded a few complaints on that exact subject tonight.”
“Then you know! I can’t believe he went after that woman tonight. What the hell is he thinking?”
“My guess is, he’s not.” Penny shook her head. “Listen, Mara, you know I love you, but I can’t go down this road with you. I’m your friend, but I’m a manager here too. I can’t discuss another employee with you. It’s not right.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s just so damn frustrating.”
Penny took Mara’s hand and gave it a squeeze. Silent support. “My shift is over. You ready to call it a night? It’s almost midnight, and we promised Frankie we would be at the café in the morning. I need my beauty sleep.”
Mara understood that Penny couldn’t talk through the Laffmoor situation with her, but she still needed to find some way to unwind after the scene in Jerry’s office. She glanced over at the blackjack table and caught the eye of a sexy brunette. She winked, earning a coy smile in response. She could help Mara work off a little stress. “I don’t know. I’m thinking about trying my luck with a hand or two of blackjack.”
Penny’s gaze settled on the woman. Her eyes registered understanding. “You spread yourself too thin,” she scolded with a frown. “It’s late. Go home and be there for Frankie tomorrow.”
“What is this project of Frankie’s anyway?”
“She didn’t say, but she was very excited.” Penny put her hands on her hips, an authoritative stance that worked very well while managing her employees, but in all their years of friendship, it had never worked on Mara.
“Frankie’s always very excited.”
“Be nice.” Penny hugged her best friend and gave her a peck on the cheek. “And be good tonight. See you in the morning.”
“Please, I’m always good.” Mara winked and headed off to the bar.
As they had promised, bright and early the next morning Penny and Mara walked into Café Gato, the local coffee shop conveniently connected to the animal shelter. They were both greeted with enthusiastic hugs from a very bubbly and possibly over-caffeinated Frankie Malone. Mara was still recovering from a nearly sleepless night of mattress dancing with the hot blackjack player and was not amused by the high-energy welcome. Early morning meetings were the pits.
“Come in, you two! I saved us the table over by the window and Singe is lounging on the cushion there.” Frankie gestured happily toward the most coveted table in the joint with sunlight streaming in the window and an air-conditioning vent overhead. “I’ll bring you over some coffee.”
Singe—a big, fat orange cat—was Mara’s favorite cat at the café, and Frankie Malone was her favorite ex-girlfriend. Actually, she was the only ex Mara even spoke to. Usually that shit was too messy, but they had been together for less than two months when it was mutually determined they made better friends than lovers and had parted on good terms. That was how their whole friend circle had started, and they were still going strong in spite of the uncoupling.
“What do you think this is about?” Penny whispered as she hung her designer handbag on the metal clip she had attached to the table.
“Maybe she wants us to adopt Singe. Look at this baby!” Mara reached over to the window seat and rubbed the lounging cat’s furry beige belly.
“That baby is a giant. He’s gotta be twenty pounds. And if that’s what she wants, it’s too bad. Neither of us can keep pets in our suites at the casino. You know that.”
“Oh, you and your rules.” Mara’s mouth twisted into a tight-lipped grimace at her best friend’s no-nonsense attitude. “You’ve been really grumpy this week, you know that?”
“They’re not my rules. I don’t make them.” Penny shook out the napkin from her place setting and primly set it on her lap. “And of course I’m grumpy. I’m stressed about work and I miss my girlfriend. I don’t have my person here to talk things through with.”
Penny and her girlfriend Lauren were in a long-distance relationship for the time being, flying back and forth between Vegas and Chicago when their schedules allowed until Lauren moved there permanently in a couple more months.
“You can talk to me about stuff.”
“I can talk to you about stuff, but not about work,” Penny said. “When it comes to work stuff, especially about the Laffmoor, you’re my employee. What I said last night works both ways. There are lines we can’t cross.”
“Sure. But the cat thing,” Mara challenged. “Admit you’re just being a party pooper.”
“What party are you pooping now?” Frankie asked, setting mismatched colorful coffee cups in front of each of the women before joining them.
“See?” Mara shrugged at Penny. She enjoyed the aroma of the hot coffee before adding cream and an unhealthy amount of sugar. Besides the charm of visiting the cats, the Café really did serve a good cup of joe, keeping patrons coming back for more. “I cannot wait for Lauren to come back into town so you can chill out again.”
“We were merely admiring Singe,” Penny explained.
“Oh!” Frankie’s chocolate brown eyes lit up. Of course she was well aware of the Rothmoor’s rules, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t take a chance to give her furry friend a forever home. “Do you want to take him home with you? Singe would make a great companion. He could keep you company while Lauren is in Chicago.”
Penny smiled kindly. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“So what’s your big news?” Mara asked. The sooner they got through the announcement, the sooner she could get back to bed. A mid-morning nap sounded like a damn good idea.
“You know how the animal shelter is always trying to come up with good fundraisers? I pitched an idea last week that the board said I could run with.” She paused to blow across the surface of her hot coffee. “I’m going to host a basket auction/comedy night here at the Café. All proceeds will go to the animal shelter.”
Frankie had started hanging out at the cafe years before when she started working at the animal shelter, before Mara even lived in Las Vegas. Café Gato’s partnership with the shelter next door helped the business grow into the success it had become. The sweet older couple who owned the café, Zig and Maeve, had worked out an arrangement where Frankie brought in some of the cats from the shelter for the patrons to enjoy a little cat therapy while they consumed their coffee and muffins. Sometimes there was a pet-love connection and a cat got adopted out of the deal. It also earned Frankie free reign at the café. A win-win.
Mara nodded. “That sounds fun.”
“Agreed. It’s a great idea,” Penny chimed in.
“I’m glad you think so, Penny.” Frankie pulled her full-out big, beaming smile. “I was hoping the Rothmoor would be one of the main sponsors.” Then she turned the high-wattage grin to her ex-girlfriend. “And Mara, you would make a really great emcee. What do you say?”
“I say yes.” Any chance to get her name out there was a good one, and publicity was the best way to get ahead in the entertainment business.
“I’ll have to run it by our people, just as a formality of course, but unofficially I’d say we’re in.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Frankie clapped her hands and stomped her feet under the table, making the springy curls on the top of her head bob and hop. Enthusiasm could have been her middle name. It was cute and charming and had totally overwhelmed Mara when they were together as a couple. “And I’m going to take the two of you out to dinner to show my appreciation.”
“Not the five-dollar buffet, Frankie.” Mara wrinkled her nose. Frankie had dragged the group to her favorite “cheap eats” spot on the strip more times than Mara cared to admit.
“What?” Frankie pouted. “They have the biggest selection of vegetarian dishes on the strip and still plenty of meat for you carnivore-types.”
“Well, count this carnivore-type out, although I do love being compared to a dinosaur,” Penny said. She had plopped her large, leather, designer handbag on her lap and dug through it, avoiding eye contact with Frankie. “I have a thing Grandad wants me to attend. There’s no getting out of it.”
Lies. Clearly all lies, Mara thought. But there was no use calling her out on it. Until Lauren came back she would have to cut Penny a little slack. That’s what best friends did. Mara tipped her head to the side, regarding Frankie with a grin. “Guess it’s just you and me, kiddo.”