Can a reality star princess transform the boy-next-door into her Cinnamon Roll Prince?
Dakota McDonald swore after “The Great Homecoming Disaster” that she’d never allow her romantic life to be a plot line in her parents’ HGTV show again. But when the restaurant run by the family of her best friend (and secret crush), Leo, is on the line, Dakota might end up eating her own words.
Leo Matsuda dreams of escaping the suffocating demands of working in his family’s restaurant, but the closer he gets to his goal—thanks to the help of his best friend (and secret crush) Dakota—the more reasons there are for him to stay.
Faking Reality will be available on July 13th, 2021. Please enjoy the following excerpt!
“Can I get you anything else?” My favorite waiter at Matsuda puts down a bowl of edamame and a steaming cup of green tea in front of me.
I slide my shades off and let my guard down. I can be myself again because the cameras aren’t allowed to follow me in here—or at school.
“You could join me.” I give him a flirty smile.
“Duh, it’s Wednesday. My future girlfriend is on TV. Like I’m going to miss that.”
As I set up my tablet, Leo grabs a tray filled with all the decorative shōyu bottles from the restaurant’s tables and a giant jug of soy sauce to refill them. I scooch over in my favorite booth so that Leo and his tray can join me. The opening strains of Kitsune Mask’s wailing guitar echo around the otherwise empty restaurant. Leo and I do our usual dance, which includes flailing arm movements—at least until my hand hits the tray and knocks over one of the decorative bottles, spilling shōyu everywhere.
“Dakota!” Leo lightly chastises me before jumping up to get a rag. “Pause it. I’ll be right back.”
My eyes follow after him. Leo Matsuda. My best friend for over a decade. The person whose lips send arcs of electricity through my body. Well, at least in my dreams, they do. In reality? I don’t know. I’d be happy to take one for the team and find out though.
I shake last night’s version—which included some intense action on the Matsudas’ living room couch—from my brain and return to the Friend Zone as Leo comes back with a rag and a plate of karaage.
“Ojiichan said to give these to you.” Leo puts the plate filled with five Japanese-style chicken nuggets in front of me and mops up the spilled shōyu.
“Dōmo arigatō gozaimashita, Ojiichan!” I yell a thanks toward the kitchen door. “Put it on my tab!”
“Hai, hai,” Yes, yes, Leo’s grandfather yells back, though we both know he isn’t keeping a running total of all the times the Matsudas have fed me for free.
“If we suddenly get busy in the next hour, can you run the cash register? Mom and Dad are at the bank, and Aurora has marching band until seven.” Leo sits back down beside me and wipes his hands on his waist apron.
“So the karaage is a bribe, then?” “Pretty much.”
I take a bite of the lightly spiced, deep-fried chicken. “Totally working.”
“Now then. My future girlfriend. Jay Yoshikawa.”
“Leo, Jay Yoshikawa isn’t a real person, and Ava Takahashi who plays her is married. Not to mention that she’s twenty-five and you’re sixteen. So, ew.”
“Shut up and let me dream.”
“Wait, I forgot to put the subtitles on.”
Leo doesn’t need subtitles for the Japanese parts, but I do. His lack of Japanese writing skills got him stuck back in Japanese II with me learning the basics, but Leo’s Japanese speaking skills are advanced, especially when he talks about food. Though I guess that’s a given when you work in your Japanese grandfather’s restaurant. Meanwhile, Ojiichan talks to Mrs. Matsuda in English— though he doesn’t need to—to work on his language skills. Her years teaching English in Japan with the JET program after college have given her some mad skills. I aspire to get to that level. Maybe I could go to Japan on the JET program one day too?
I’m not going anywhere until my contract with HGTV is up though. They own me for the rest of this season. Then I will be free. Free to be me. Free to do whatever I want without having it possibly documented on film. I can leave my sunglasses off and my barriers down all the time. I can tell Leo how I feel about him.
“You okay, Koty?” Leo tips his head to the side and gives me a quizzical look.
“Yeah, sorry.” I push play and let Leo slip away into his favorite show. One of the few things that is just for him in his overcrowded life.
As we watch the show, I cut my eyes to the side occasionally to watch Leo. Yeah, he has it bad for Jay Yoshikawa. Maybe one day he’ll look at me that way too.
“Can I have some edamame?” Leo says when the show breaks for a commercial. He opens his mouth. I shoot a couple of soybeans into his mouth. One pings off his upper lip and onto the table. “Hey, in my mouth and not up my nose, please.”
“Learned your lesson from the last time?” “I was four. Give me a break.”
Our favorite show comes back on, and Leo’s attention goes back to it. Jay is just about to crush this week’s creeptastic yōkai as her secret identity Kitsune Mask when Mr. and Mrs. Matsuda burst through the front door of the restaurant.
“It’s fine, honey,” Mrs. Matsuda says. “Everything is going to work out fine. We’ll swap things around a bit. That will help boost traffic.”
“Hey, kids.” Mr. Matsuda looks over his shoulder and gives his wife a pointed look. She drops the conversation.
“Hey, Mr. Matsuda. Mrs. Matsuda,” I say as Leo refills the last of the shōyu bottles.
“Anything else you guys want done before what I hope will be the dinner rush?” Leo slides to his feet and balances the tray on his arm with his usual grace.
“No, honey. I’ll call you if I need you.” Mrs. Matsuda kisses the top of Leo’s closely cropped head. “Do some homework so you won’t have to stay up so late again tonight.” Leo groans. “Okay, you can finish your show first.”
Leo flits around the restaurant putting all the shōyu bottles back on their tables while humming our latest jam. I nod along, as YouTube sensation Rayne Lee’s song “One Last Kiss” has been on my mental radio all day long too. After depositing the tray on the counter, Leo oversings the chorus while doing a dance-y walk across the restaurant. He pauses in the middle of the floor to do the video’s signature four finger snaps before finishing his strut to our table. I laugh. Nobody at school gets to see this side of Leo. These one-man shows are only for me.
“You are such a dork,” I say as Leo slides back in the booth with me.
“Can’t help it. Rayne’s song has been stuck in my head all day long.”
As soon as I push play again, a couple comes into the restaurant. Followed by a family of six. Leo’s free time is over for today, and now he has to do his part in the family machine. My heart hurts for him. And for me.
“Tell you what. After I’m done, I’ll leave my tablet in the back with Ojiichan. You can watch the last ten minutes tonight when you get home or if you have a slow spot during dinner.”
“Thanks.” Leo’s dimpled smile makes my heart melt.
I clear my throat. Get back in the Friend Zone, Dakota. “Anytime.”
“This is awesome, Patrick,” Mom° says to her college friend—and frequent guest expert on the show—via Zoom. “I knew you would know. You were always Dr. Henderson’s favorite for a reason.” Mom waves at me over the top of her computer monitor. “Let’s do this all again on . . .” Mom looks at Stephanie, our show’s talent coordinator, who gives her the answer. “Tuesday at one thirty p.m. Same convo without the personal stuff. And be sure to move to your left about six inches more so we can get your business logo in the background. Great. See you soon.”
Mom takes off her headset and swivels her chair around. “How was school today, Koty?”
“Eh.” I shrug.
Stephanie moves a pile of research books off the only other chair in Mom’s cramped home office and pats it until I sit down. Ugh. There will be work-work coming any second now.
“Tea break?” Stephanie says, confirming my suspicions.
“Yes, please, Steph.” Mom slides off her reading glasses and rubs her eyes. “Let’s break open that goodie box from Cadbury’s.”
While Stephanie heads to the kitchen, Mom rolls her chair over to the circular table and peers at Stephanie’s open laptop.
“So next Monday, break out the flannels. We’re going up to McGuthrie Farms to pick out our Christmas tree for the holiday special.” Sweat pools in the back of my tank top after my short skateboard ride home from Matsuda. “Do I have to wear a winter coat? All that faux fur around my sweaty face is going to be itchy.” “Yes.”
“C’mon, Mom. It’s still eighty degrees up north, I bet.” “Seventy-five,” Mom corrects me. “But we’re going to wear the coats and enjoy McGuthrie’s famous hot chocolate and think cool thoughts. After all, we are professionals. Unless, of course, you’ve changed your mind about buying a car.”
“Hot chocolate and winter coats in August it is.” “That’s my girl.”
Leo refers to the way my family lives four or more months in the future because of our shooting schedule as the “McDonalds’ Alternate Universe.” For example, we filmed our traditional McDonald Family Thanksgiving with turkey, matching sweaters, and the air conditioner turned down to arctic levels before heading over to the Matsudas’ house for a belated Independence Day barbecue.
“Can’t we go on Saturday or Sunday instead?” I say. “I don’t want to miss school.”
Mom raises an eyebrow. “Because of school or because Leo’s only day off is Monday?”
“School.” But when Mom’s laser stare penetrates me, I add, “And it’s Leo’s only afternoon and evening off. We still have to go to school. We wanted to watch a movie after our JCC meeting.”
“I’ll see if Stephanie can move it back to the weekend, but you know that comes with the extra crowds. Which is more important to you? Your personal space while filming or an afternoon with Leo?”
Hands down, a free afternoon with Leo, but I pretend to think it over. “I’m getting better with the crowds. Just promise that if someone brings up last year’s Homecoming that we are out.”
“Of course. I know that’s still a sore spot for you.”
That’s the understatement of the century. A sore spot is an embarrassing moment that your friends rag you about for a few months. A sore spot isn’t having your social blunders made into gifs and memes that circulate the internet. And then there’s the SNL skit that cemented the moment into pop-culture history. My heart rate doubles, and the prickling sensation returns to my chest.
“Dakota. Deepen your breaths.” Mom’s hand on my arm slows my downward spiral. “We are not going there. Not today. Not ever again. Come back to today. Tell me about what you did after school. Tell me about Leo. What was he wearing?”
In any other context, that last statement would be somewhere between wildly inappropriate and completely gross, but I know what Mom is doing. I picture us sitting in the booth. Leo wears a T-shirt the same color as the cooked edamame shells. I focus the lens on Leo’s face as the bean misses his open mouth and ricochets off his upper lip. The lips that keep ending up on mine in my dreams. When I open my eyes, Stephanie stands next to us with the tea tray and a concerned look on her face.
“How are you doing now?” Mom says.
“A little better. Dr. Berger’s techniques help,” I say.
Stephanie puts the tray on the table and serves us like she’s a waitress in a cluttered, nerdy teahouse. “Try the square ones. They have dark chocolate in the center.”
I’m convinced this is why Mom gently persuaded the production company to pick Stephanie as our talent coordinator. Stephanie and Mom share a mutual love of afternoon tea. They dissect PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre on Monday mornings like other people discuss The Bachelor. They are also both graduates of Oxford University, though a good twenty-plus years apart. You want to push either of their buttons? Put a tea bag in a mug of water, nuke it in the microwave, and refer to it as tea.
“Steph, can we see if McGuthrie Farms is willing to move our shooting date to the weekend instead of Monday?” Mom helps herself to one of the heaping pile of chocolate-covered biscuits—“Do not call them cookies”—in the center of the table.
Stephanie raises a quizzical eyebrow. “Are you sure you want to do that, Dakota?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Okay then. I’ll make it happen.” Stephanie taps a quick note on her laptop before placing it on the bookshelf next to some antique-looking fabric samples.
I thought my contented sigh was Mr. Inside Voice, but apparently it wasn’t because Stephanie says, “Are you ever going to ask Leo out on a real date?”
“No.” I nibble on a biscuit. “At least, not until my contract is up and the cameras are gone.”
“Good plan,” Mom says. It’s one thing for people to make a bingo game out of your unintentionally overused catchphrases, but the Great Homecoming Disaster cut my parents—especially Mom—deeply too. “One last season, then we can all try something new. In fact, I was thinking about going back to Oxford for a visit this summer while Dakota is in Japan on her school trip. Solo.”
My face must telegraph my concern because Mom adds, “It’s fine. Your dad and Uncle Ted are already talking about some big fishing trip up in Alaska around the same time. It will be a great chance for everybody to disconnect from our previous life and try something new. Maybe grow a little bit. Definitely a chance to refresh and recharge.”
“If you need someone to carry your luggage while you’re at Oxford.” Stephanie raises her hand. “I volunteer as tribute.”
“Tell you what, Steph. You decide where you want to go after we wrap the show, and I will make it happen. Airfare, hotel, the whole nine yards. You deserve it after all the network nonsense you’ve helped us navigate over the years.”
“I would love that, Tamlyn. Where to go, though?” Stephanie taps her lips with her index finger.
Mom’s phone pings. “Doug is finished. He wants us to come next door and see it.”
“He couldn’t take a picture and show us?” I shake my head and chug the last of my tea.
“Humor him.” Mom puts a few cookies on a decorative napkin. “Here, bring your dad some biscuits.”
“Wait. Before you two go.” Stephanie quickly tidies the table and rearranges it a bit. She takes a bite out of one of the cookies and places it back on the plate. She opens up the camera app on her work phone and frames the shot.
“Please don’t put me in it,” I beg. “I’ve got a huge zit on my forehead.”
Stephanie shuffles the tea set around. “Both of you caress the fine bone china teacups. Yep, that looks good. I’ll load it up and tag Cadbury and Noritake in thanks. Don’t forget, Koty, you need to post today too. Got to keep The Network happy.”
“Can you send me a picture and caption? I have a ton of homework tonight.”
“It’s supposed to be your feed, Dakota. Phil wants authenticity.
And spark.” Mom mocks Phil’s jazz hands “spark.”
Stephanie and I look at each other and let out derisive snorts. “Tomorrow, we talk about the spin-off digital series, okay?” Stephanie says and I groan. She ignores me and loads our tea stuff back on the tray. “Tamara Weatherbee is pressing Phil about this. He’s not a fan of our new EP but he has to play nice with her. At least until he either takes her job or lands an executive producer job at another production company. Tell me what you want, Dakota, and I’ll see if we can get The Network to give a little more with their take.”
I don’t know what to ask for in return for doing their YouTube-wannabe show. Thanks to my generous contract with HGTV, I can buy anything I want . . .
Okay, there are two things my money can’t buy: a car and my way out of Leo’s Friend Zone. At least, the first one I can solve after I pass Drivers Ed at school and receive a full driver’s license issued by the State of Arizona.
Dad slides his safety glasses u°p w°hen°we come through the door a minute later. His salt-and-pepper hair sticks up at a bunch of weird angles.
Dad throws his hands out wide. “Tah-dah!” “They’re just fancy cookies, Dad.”
“I was referring to the state of the newly refurbished and installed banister behind me.” Dad pats the banister proudly. “But, I am equally excited that you brought me a snack.”
“Patrick said the beat-up refrigerator we found down in Tucson was mid-1930s like I thought.” Mom pats some of Dad’s silver horns down. “I’m going to research it a bit more before we film on Tuesday. Let’s pull out the icebox versus high-tech—at least by 1930s standards—refrigerator angle in the next episode. It’s unique, plus it will give Patrick’s business a bump. He and Phoebe are expecting their third grandchild in the spring, so they could use the extra cash.”
“Well, now I feel old.” Dad double fists the cookies.
“Whoa, slow down there, Santa,” I say, and Dad winces at his latest internet nickname.
“Hey, Santa is fine.” Mom plants a kiss on Dad’s cheek above his now fully white beard. “Santa is a positive thing.”
“So, you’re saying that I can now refer to you as Mrs. Claus?” Dad says.
“Absolutely not.” Mom pats at her hair. “Why? Are my roots showing?”
People routinely think my parents, who are both sixty-two, are my grandparents. Nope. Go back to Season 4, Episode 12: “A Christmas Miracle.” It’s the episode that Mom revealed that at forty-six, she was going to be a first-time mom. She had planned on being quiet about it. After the tabloids kept mistaking Mom’s horrible morning sickness—which made her look gaunt and pale on-screen—as cancer, they decided to put the rumors to rest.
Producers couldn’t have scripted a more emotionally charged plot arc than Mom collapsing at a book signing and going into premature labor. Me being born eight hours later and spending an overly complicated three months in the NICU was ratings gold. As fans helped pay for my outrageous medical bills—by continuing to watch our show—my parents still feel an obligation to put more of themselves out there for their True Fans than most people would. That’s why they agreed for me to be on TV with them. So I could play the role of the Miracle Baby. Then the Miracle Child. Then the Awkward Adolescent. And thanks to last year about this time, the Angsty Teenager.
Now I’m ready for this role to be over. I want to be Just Dakota.
I don’t know who she is or what she wants though.
Strike that. There is one thing I definitely want. Only I can’t have him. Yet.
“Let me prep for shooting tomorrow, and then I’ll go shower.” Dad slides Mjölnir, aka his favorite hammer, back into the loop on his tool belt. “Since it’s my night to cook, I vote we get takeout from Matsuda and binge-watch something.”
Never one to turn down dinner from Matsuda, I say, “Or we could eat at the restaurant and then come home. I have a kanji test tomorrow in Japanese to study for and an essay due too.”
“Do you want me to quiz you on the kanji? That way I can practice too. I wish I started studying Japanese before I was an adult, but my mother—and especially my grandmother—didn’t want us to. She wanted us to leave our Japanese side behind and become one hundred percent American.”
“Well, that’s biting me in the butt right now.” Granted, I barely squeak under the Asian bar at only one-quarter Japanese, but it’s still a part of me. A part of my history. “If we eat at Matsuda, then I can ask Mrs. Matsuda to check my Japanese essay at the same time.”
“Dakota, we are not asking Jen to check your essay while she’s working,” Mom says.
Part of me wonders if Mom’s resistance to her closest friend checking my work has more to do with the fact that a zero-percent Japanese person knows more about Japanese language, culture, and food than her fifty-percent Japanese self does. But Mom has never lived in Japan, and Mrs. Matsuda did for years.
“Only if they’re not that busy,” I say.
“Fine. I have a couple of more emails to do, but I’ll be ready to go by six, Doug.” Mom kisses Dad’s cheek again. “I love it when it’s your night to cook.”
“I’m not that bad!” Dad says.
“Weren’t you the person Food TV specifically called to be on their Worst Cooks in America show, the celebrity charity edition?” I say.
“Maaaaybe. By the way, I see right through you, Dakota Rae. You want to go to Matsuda so you can see Leo,” Dad says, and my heart trips. “I know we’ve been working a lot lately. You miss your friends. Why don’t you invite Leo over? Order some pizzas. Spend some quality couch potato time together.”
I guarantee that the version of couch potato time with Leo that passes through my brain is 100 percent different than what Dad’s thinking.
“Yeah, I’d like that. A lot.”