The Love Con Excerpt

The Love Con cover

“And we’re back with our two Cosplay or No Way finalists, Ben and Kenya!”

The audience cheers washed over Kenya. Euphoria zapped through her, nervous energy making her bounce on her toes as she vacillated between disbelief and elation. The final round! She was in the final round! She almost pinched herself as the reality of being a finalist began to settle in. The grand prize was close, so close. Just one more cosplay away.

Mark turned to them with a smile. “Congratulations, top two. You’ve fought long and hard to make it here, and each of you deserve your place in the finals. However, there’s no time to rest on your success. In fact, in this final round we want to see how you design and create your cosplays on your home turf.”

She and Ben exchanged glances. Home turf?

“That’s right. The next part of the competition will follow the two of you as you return home to make your final-round costumes. A production crew will film you in your element. We want to see how you craft your creations in your personal space!”

Excitement and anxiety faced off in her nerves, ready to duke it out for the top spot. Her personal space was her bedroom in the apartment she shared with Cam, her best friend. She couldn’t imagine trying to fit a camera crew in there. Besides, it was her bedroom, and she tended to be a bit messy during the design phase, creating several sketches as she finalized her concept. Maybe Cam would agree to let her use their dining area since they usually ate at the breakfast bar or in front of the television.

“I’m sure everyone is wondering about the final-round challenge. For that, we turn to our judges. Leon?”

Leon regarded them, his smile stuck somewhere on the road between heaven and hell. “Contestants, you’ve consistently brought your A game for every week of this competition. Now, we want to see your A-plus work. Your final challenge will be iconic duos.”

Duos? After they’d just finished mashups week? If that’s what they wanted, she wasn’t going to complain. She could do a gender-bent Two-Face, or one of the gem fusions from Steven Universe.

“That’s the good news,” Caroline said, “but you know we have to step it up for this final round. With that in mind, your iconic duo must be a pairs cosplay.”

“What?” Ben whispered, looking as confused as Kenya felt. Did that mean making two costumes?

“That’s right.” Rebecca surveyed them. “Not only do we want to see how you juggle cosplaying with your normal life, we want you to create two costumes: one for you, and one for your cosplaying partner.”

Kenya’s mouth dropped open. Two costumes? Cosplay partner? Her mind raced. Did they need to create them from scratch or could they source parts? Most importantly, how much time did they have two create two costumes?

Caroline leaned forward. “We all know that cosplayers do everything from making their own cosplays to commissioning full costumes from someone else. You’re probably wondering what’s allowed for you in this final-round iconic duo cosplay challenge. So here are the parameters for your final challenge.

“First of all, both costumes must be at least fifty percent handmade. Of course, the more handmade the costumes are, the more points you can score. Secondly, we know there’s a lot of pressure to make two costumes, so you’re allowed to have help from your cosplay partner. However, seventy-five percent of the work has to be yours. You’ll also need to recap your work at the end of the day with a video diary entry.”

Rebecca gave them a smile Kenya instantly mistrusted. “This is all about being the best, which means testing and stressing you. That’s why you and your partner will have four weeks to complete your costumes before you return here to cosplay for the live audience.”

The shocked murmurs of the audience echoed the shock that swept through Kenya. There was no way they could expect two costumes to be finished in four weeks, especially with that fifty-percent-handmade requirement. And with one person doing the bulk of the work?

She looked at Ben, who looked as floored as she felt. “What?” he whispered. “Are they serious?”

“We’re very serious,” Leon answered. “Just as you should be, especially about who you’ll pick as your cosplay partner. Remember, your partner can do up to twenty-five percent of the build, and they’ll need to cosplay with you in the finale.”

“Who will our finalists pick as their cosplay partners?” Mark asked the audience. “We’ll find out—right after this.”

Kenya’s mind raced as everyone waited for the commercial break to end, imagining and discarding all the duos that immediately came to mind. With four weeks to work, it would be nearly impossible to do any costume with a great deal of detail work, and certainly not two.

Then there was the matter of picking her cosplay partner. Who could she get to help her? Her mind instantly went to Cam, but her best friend had his hands full running the fabrication shop, especially since she wasn’t there to handle logistics and order intake. Her parents were out. Neither one understood her obsession with the geekery of anime and gaming or adults running around in costumes outside of Halloween, and even then they deployed maximum side-eye.

Besides, they’d been against her doing the show from the start. They wanted her to “give up this foolishness” and use her engineering degree they’d paid for. Her brother was off in the Air Force and her sisters were busy with their families and their careers on opposite sides of the country. Janelle might have been willing, but her other best friend didn’t even own a sewing kit. Bringing Janelle on board meant Kenya would wind up doing one hundred percent of the work. What was she going to do?

“Welcome back to Cosplay or No Way,” Mark announced as he was counted back in from the commercial break. “Let’s recap the parameters of the finale   round.”

Dramatic music and lighting rolled across the stage as the jumbo screen lit up, bold white letters spelling out FINAL ROUND RULES   on a purple background. “First, conceive of an iconic duo cosplay that you and your partner will showcase during our live finale. Second, at least fifty percent of each costume must be handmade. Third, your cosplay partner can help you, but you must do seventy-five percent of the work. Each of you will have a production crew following your progress, and of course we want to continue seeing those video diaries. Judges, anything else?”

Leon spoke. “You’re going to have your hands full in this challenging round, but overcoming challenges is part of what being a Cosplay or No Way champion is all about. I would suggest you choose your cosplay partner carefully.”

“Ben,” Mark said. “Who will you choose to partner with to help you become the Cosplay or No Way champion?”

Ben, who’d done an excellent mashup of The Stay- Puft Michelin Man, smiled. “My husband, John. He’s as into cosplay as I am.”

Crap. She knew from their conversations that Ben’s husband was an active cosplayer and did set design for their local theater. Acid churned in her stomach. The choice gave him a huge advantage. She needed to level the playing field, which meant she needed someone who not only cosplayed, but could help make their costumes without Kenya having to supervise every step.

Her thoughts returned to Cam. They’d been best friends for half their lives and had cosplayed together since they first attended Dragon Con during their senior year of high school. He also knew his way around a 3-D printer and an X-acto knife. But she couldn’t take him away from the shop. Yes, Mack and Javier were there, but since she ran the project management software, she knew just how lean the shop ran. Taking her off the schedule was a pain, but manageable. Taking Cam out of production . . .

He would do it, she knew. Cam was the reason she’d heard about the competition. He’d helped her prepare her audition video, sent encouraging texts and a good- luck video with their game night friends. He’d supported her every step of the way. This . . . this might stretch their bonds of their friendship to the breaking point.

“Kenya, it’s now your turn,” Mark said, his voice snapping her out of her spiraling thoughts. “Who will be your cosplay partner in the final round? Who will you choose to help you create an iconic duo cosplay that will win you $100,000 and the title of Cosplay or No Way champion?”

The musical tension increased as the audience fell silent. Kenya was sure they could hear her gut churning. She glanced at the judges, trying not to let Rebecca’s smug expression get to her. She was pretty sure the snotty judge doubted she had anyone close enough to meet the qualifications to help her.

“Well, Kenya?” Rebecca raised an eyebrow. “Do you have a significant other who can help you in this final round, like Ben does?”

Kenya carefully blanked her expression so they wouldn’t notice she was internally seething. She’d broken up with her last boyfriend months ago for good reasons, but she’d be damned if she’d give Becky the satisfaction of knowing that. “I do.”

Rebecca tilted her head in surprise. “Really. Who might that be?”

“There’s only one person who’s been with me all through my cosplay journey,” she said, her voice quavering as nerves stretched tight. “The one who believes in me the most. The one who helped me get here, who’s cheered me on from the start. The one person who’s encouraged me to push myself, to be more and do more. My best friend, Cameron Lassiter.”

“Ah.” Rebecca’s expression reminded Kenya of the shark in that movie about the missing clown fish. “That’s your friend, right? I hope that won’t put you at a disadvantage, considering Ben is working with his spouse.”

Does this heifer think I can’t get a man? Kenya unzipped a smile. “Cam is my best friend and my partner. Trust and believe I’m not disadvantaged in the least.”

“You go, girl!” Someone in the audience shouted, causing the crowd to explode with laughter, then applause. Vindication swelled in her chest, and she gave them a genuine grin and wave before giving Rebecca the same smug smile she’d received earlier. Take that, Becky.

“There you have it, folks!” Mark boomed. “Two couples going head-to-head to create iconic cosplay duos. Which team will come out on top to claim $100,000 and a chance to work on a major movie? We’ll have to wait and see. Tune in next week as our finalists return to their home turf and begin the build of their lives on Cosplay or No Way!”

Thrills shot through her like fireworks. There really wasn’t anyone else she wanted with her in the final round. That was the truth. Maybe she’d split hairs on the whole partner thing, but they really were partners, given her tiny stake in his shop. Their friendship had lasted longer than a bunch of marriages. Surely it wouldn’t be a problem to fake that their relationship was more than just friends.

Now all she had to do was convince Cam to be her cosplay partner—and her significant other.

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