The Paradise Problem

The Paradise Problem

by Christina Lauren
The Paradise Problem

The Paradise Problem

by Christina Lauren

Hardcover

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Overview

Notes From Your Bookseller

Downright hilarious and as feel-good as it gets, The Paradise Problem is nonetheless riddled with real emotion that will leave you feeling all the best feels.

Christina Lauren, the instant New York Times bestselling and “reigning romance queens” (PopSugar), returns with a delicious new romance between the buttoned-up heir of a grocery chain and his free-spirited artist ex as they fake their relationship in order to receive a massive inheritance.

Anna Green thought she was marrying Liam “West” Weston for access to subsidized family housing while at UCLA. She also thought she’d signed divorce papers when the graduation caps were tossed, and they both went on their merry ways.

Three years later, Anna is a starving artist living paycheck to paycheck while West is a Stanford professor. He may be one of four heirs to the Weston Foods conglomerate, but he has little interest in working for the heartless corporation his family built from the ground up. He is interested, however, in his one-hundred-million-dollar inheritance. There’s just one catch.

Due to an antiquated clause in his grandfather’s will, Liam won’t see a penny until he’s been happily married for five years. Just when Liam thinks he’s in the home stretch, pressure mounts from his family to see this mysterious spouse, and he has no choice but to turn to the one person he’s afraid to introduce to his one-percenter parents—his unpolished, not-so-ex-wife.

But in the presence of his family, Liam’s fears quickly shift from whether the feisty, foul-mouthed, paint-splattered Anna can play the part to whether the toxic world of wealth will corrupt someone as pure of heart as his surprisingly grounded and loyal wife. Liam will have to ask himself if the price tag on his flimsy cover story is worth losing true love that sprouted from a lie.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781668017722
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: 05/14/2024
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 722
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Christina Lauren is the combined pen name of longtime writing partners and best friends Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings, the New York Times, USA TODAY, and #1 internationally bestselling authors of the Beautiful and Wild Seasons series, Autoboyography, Love and Other Words, Roomies, Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating, The Unhoneymooners, The Soulmate Equation, Something Wilder, The True Love Experiment and The Paradise Problem. You can find them online at ChristinaLaurenBooks.com or @ChristinaLauren on Instagram.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue Prologue
The day my husband moves out of our apartment is also the day Resident Evil Village releases for PlayStation, and you might be surprised which of these things lands with a greater emotional impact.

But given that I am not a monster, and that we have indeed enjoyed this apartment together for two years, I do what any woman who’s been given the couch and TV in a divorce would do: I watch with a supportive smile as West and his two well-muscled and newly minted PhD bros carry box after box, dining chair after dining chair, suitcase after suitcase, and the remaining ninety percent of the furniture and decor out to the moving van parked at the curb. I now have hardly any earthly goods to my name, and I guess that’s a little sad—I’ve made great use of West’s stuff over the past two years—but this moment was inevitable.

At least I take comfort in knowing that packing my own belongings in two weeks will be significantly easier than this.

Out at the curb, West emerges from the back of the truck and hops gracefully down to the street, gazing up at what I’m sure is a highly organized packing job. You should have seen our pantry: truly a work of cataloging genius. My meticulous ex is twenty-eight, infrequently verbal, and one of those incredibly capable men who make complicated things like doing taxes and fixing holes in drywall look easy. I admit, beyond the sexy capability vibe, West is also a fox. He’s that perfect combination of height and muscle, though I have no idea how tall he is. Is it weird that I’ve never asked? I realize that most tall women are obsessed with how tall other people are, but I’ve never had that itch. I’ve known lots of men—men who are taller, men who are shorter, men who are exactly my height. All I know is that West is chin-at-eye-level tall. At our wedding he had to bend to kiss me.

I haven’t thought about that day in ages, but I guess it makes sense that I’m thinking about it now. That kiss feels like it happened a lifetime ago. Two years into this adventure, and I’m better acquainted with the couch he’s leaving behind than I am with him.

Now, standing on the sidewalk, he turns and looks at me, our eyes meeting and giving me a weird, wavy feeling in my stomach, a touch of lightheadedness. It’s not low blood sugar; I ate half a bag of jalapeño chips while I watched him pack. And it’s not the heat; May in LA is the very definition of temperate. I think, strangely, it’s him.

West’s eyes are the color of sunlight passing through a glass of whiskey. His hair is that exact same color, but with more sunlight streaking through, and so thick I suspect it alone has ruined me for other men. I tried to paint it once, mixing Transparent Oxide-Red Lake with Old Holland Yellow-Brown but it wasn’t quite right, and as soon as I realized how much it annoyed me that I couldn’t get the correct color of his hair down on canvas, I immediately wondered why I’d become so invested in the first place.

With that intense eye contact still happening, West walks over and stops barely a foot away. For a weird, fevered beat I wonder if he’s actually going to kiss me goodbye.

“I think I’m all set here,” he says, and lol of course he isn’t going to kiss me. “But if I forgot anything, you can have Jake come pick it up.”

Jake: younger brother to West (and only slightly less good-looking) and that type of college friend who knows everything about my life at UCLA but has never met my father, who lives only an hour away. Jake introduced me to West; now Jake will be my sole remaining connection to West. The thought makes me a little sad, but then I remember I have the couch and T-virus zombies waiting for me inside.

“Sounds good,” I say.

“You’ve got copies of the papers?” he asks. “My attorney looked over everything, and it should be sorted, but his phone number is there in case there’s any issue.” He pauses, eyes searching mine in a way I honestly don’t think they have before, like he’s trying to see me for the first time. “My number will be the same, of course. Read through everything and call me if you have any questions.”

“Of course. Thanks for handling that.”

He smiles, and his face absolutely opens up when it happens. I wonder why he doesn’t do it more. Maybe he does, actually. I barely ever see him. He’s up before sunrise to go for a run and spends every waking hour at class or the library before hitting the gym around midnight. By contrast, I live at the art studio, or on his—now my—couch.

I’m not sure what else there is to say, so I try to wrap this up: “Congratulations on finishing, West. You must be so happy.”

“Absolutely,” he says, digging his hands into the pockets of his jeans. I’ve mostly seen him in basketball shorts and free marathon T-shirts, so the worn Levi’s and cozy gray T-shirt combo is a surprise this late in the game. I feel a little cheated to only be seeing it now. A tiny strip of his boxers waistband is visible and I work very hard to keep my eyes on his face. “Congratulations to you, too,” he adds. “On to new, big things.”

“Right,” I say, laughing. “The world breathlessly awaits my next move.”

He laughs, too, and the sound sends electricity scratching down my spine.

An awkward silence blankets us, but he’s staring directly at me, and I feel like I can’t look away. This is, like, eye contact eye contact. Like staring-contest eye contact, like studying a series of numbers to be memorized in a spy movie eye contact, and I force myself not to fold first.

“Well,” he says finally, “I guess that’s it, then.”

“I hope you have a good life.” It sounds trite, but I do mean it.

“You, too.” West smiles that eye-crinkling smile again, and damn, I really wish I’d seen it more. “Bye, Anna.”

“Bye, West.”

We shake hands. He turns, walking to the curb to meet his friends, who squeeze beside him into the truck’s cab. One of them rolls down the window, waving at me. I happily wave back, even though I have no idea what his name is.

I feel a body come up beside mine and turn my head to see our neighbor Candi in her bathrobe. She’s always in her bathrobe so I’ve long wondered what she does all day. But she makes a killer key lime pie and has loud sex with her husband, Rob, around midnight every day like clockwork, so clearly she’s crushing it.

“Are you moving?” she asks, looking behind me toward the mostly empty apartment.

“Oh, I’m moving in two weeks,” I tell her. “West just left.”

I feel her attention move from the empty apartment to the side of my face, and when I smile over at her, her blue eyes are round with worry. “Holy shit, Anna, I had no idea. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I tell her, looking down the street as the moving truck makes a turn and disappears from view entirely.

“Okay,” she says with a frown in her voice. “I’m glad.” She sets a hand on my arm. “But if you need to talk, you know I’m here, okay?”

I realize with a gust of happiness that the cover story doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve finished my bachelor’s and have a life of unknown adventure ahead; West has finished his doctorate and is on his way to his brilliant future as something impressive and serious. We both got what we wanted.

“Oh no, I’m fine!” I assure her. “I barely know him.”

Candi stares at me. “What?”

I point at the apartment behind me. “Family housing. He was just a random dude I married so I could live here. Thank you, though.”

With one last smile, I squeeze her hand where it rests on my arm and turn to go inside. I have zombies to kill.


Chapter One One
Three years later

If you’d told me back in college that my primary source of income at twenty-five would be working as the night cashier at the corner convenience store, I... well, I might have believed you. Having done a one-eighty junior year when I acknowledged that my brain does not “science” and pivoted from premed to art, I remained realistic about what life as an artist might entail. Every fine arts major at UCLA has dreams of becoming the next big set designer, costume mastermind, or art scene It kid, but those of us whose ambitions are simply “afford rent and health insurance” are aware we will most likely be waitresses by day and hobby painters by night. So the fact that it’s 12:44 a.m. and I am womaning the register at the Pico Pick-It-Up and not at some fancy party rubbing elbows with the creative elite shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all myself.

But with my dad’s medical bills slowly climbing, my ambitions might have to climb, too.

I carefully turn the page of the US Weekly I borrowed from the magazine rack. There are lots of lucrative jobs on display here. Do I have what it takes to be the next big art influencer, someday featured in the Celebrities... They’re Just Like Us! page? I’m young and know how to wear a T-shirt without a bra. That’s at least half of what’s required, right?

I imagine it:

Instagram sensation Anna Green caught with a perfectly messy topknot outside of Sprouts!

TikTok star Anna Green and her sexy actor boyfriend caught canoodling in front of Soho House!

I wonder how much an influencer makes these days and whether it’s worth the humiliation of monologuing into a selfie stick in front of Picasso’s Woman with a Book at the Norton Simon, or the patience it would take to get a ring light positioned just right to draw tiny tigers on my eyelids using only vegan skin care products.

This thought exercise has clarified something for me: I’m too lazy for an influencer life.

But it’s fine. Between five nights a week here, three lunch shifts at Amir’s Café, the occasional dog-walking hustle, and plasma donation when things get really tight, I’m paying my rent. I’m covering most of Dad’s health insurance and medical expenses. That’s what matters. Deep breath. I flip the page, moving onto the Red Flag Exes! section.

“Anna.”

I lean across the checkout counter and look both ways. My boss, Ricky, stands in the doorway to his small, cramped office, his wispy blond hair falling over his boyish eyes, tight fists planted on his narrow hips. He’s wearing a Naruto T-shirt and sweatpants bearing the logo of his recent alma mater, Hamilton High School.

“Yeah?”

“Could I speak to you for a moment?”

“Sure.” I hook a thumb over my shoulder toward the store’s entrance. “Want me to close up for a few?”

He shakes his head. “It’s one in the morning. We average half a customer from one to two.”

“Fair.” I hop off my stool and gently place the magazine back on the rack before dancing my way down the aisle. Ricky graduated last June but had no interest in college, prompting his parents to offer him the challenge of managing their Pick-It-Up location at Pico and Manning sandwiched quite literally between a Subway and a Jimmy John’s. Barb and Paul are two of my favorite people in the world, but Ricky has been using this Stern Boss voice with me ever since he asked me to dinner on his eighteenth birthday and I said no. Be serious.

I lean against the doorway and brush my too-long, barely-pink-anymore bangs from my face. I’m in desperate need of a cut and color, but such things fall very far down on the priority list these days. “What’s up?”

He straightens a string-bean arm and tries to look authoritative as he motions to the chair across from him. It looks like one of those old elementary school chairs, with the contoured plastic seat and tubular steel frame, but the closest school is over half a mile away. It showed up in the alley one day and it’s been in the office ever since. “Could you come sit down, please?”

I take a seat but glance over my shoulder at the front of the store. Even if Ricky has called me back here, it’s still my till in the register. The last thing I need is someone bolting in and doing a quick grab of all the cash in there. The Verizon store three doors down was robbed just last week. “Are you sure we can’t chat out there? It makes me uneasy leaving the store unattended.”

“Well, that’s ironic.”

I turn back to look at him. From my little chair I see that he has a distinct height advantage, which I realize now is probably intentional. “Pardon?”

He flips a pencil between his fingers. His nails are all chewed up, there’s a faded blue stamp on the back of his right hand from Randy’s Arcade, and he’s wearing his high school class ring. Ricky straightens his spine and tries to look taller. He’s five seven standing on a box. It’s not my most mature coping strategy, but sometimes when Ricky is particularly condescending, I’ll draw little caricatures of him dwarfed in his dad’s broad-shouldered suit, his feet swimming in his dad’s giant shoes. “It’s ironic when you pretend to be concerned about the store being robbed.”

“Ironic?” I ask. “How so?”

“I saw footage of you taking a pack of gum yesterday. You never paid for it.”

I squint, thinking back. I did take a pack of gum. Probably thirty minutes into my eight-hour shift. “How do you know I didn’t pay for it?”

He points to the security camera in the corner of the office, reminding me, I suppose, that there are cameras everywhere. But if he knows I never paid for it, then...

“You watched eight hours of footage of me?” I ask.

Ricky shifts in his chair and the faux-leather squeaks under him like a fart. He tries to do it again and fails. With his face red, he clarifies, “On fast-forward.”

I know how old those security cameras are. Fast-forward is, at best, double speed. “So, you’re saying you only watched four hours of footage of me at work?”

Flushing, he waves this off. “The time I spent isn’t the point.”

I swallow down the response I know won’t get me anywhere: Four hours of your wasted time seems like a bigger theft of resources than a single two-dollar pack of gum in three years’ employment, as does you being here working the graveyard shift with me when we average zero-point-five customers every hour.

Instead, I say, “I just forgot. I didn’t have any cash and I didn’t want to pay a five-dollar debit fee for a transaction under ten dollars.”

“You should have put an IOU in the cash drawer yesterday.”

“An IOU? Like... on paper?”

He nods. “Feed out the receipt paper and use that.”

“How would Kelly have accounted for that when she came in at seven?”

“She could have told me you took a pack of gum and would pay for it later.”

“But you knew I took a pack of gum. You watched the entire video.”

His nostrils flare. “The point is we can’t trust you.”

“Ricky, I’ll pay for the gum now. God, I’ve worked here for three years, and this is the first time you’ve ever had an issue with me.”

The face he makes tells me that I don’t have this quite right.

I sit back in my little chair. “Oh. I see. This is about the date.”

Ricky leans forward on his forearms, clasping his hands the way his dad does when he’s in Mentor Paul mode. But Paul could give me a two-hour sermon about how to be successful in business and I’d eat it all up because he’s charismatic and caring and worked his ass off to get a chain of four stores in downtown Los Angeles. Ricky got an Audi for his sixteenth birthday, a store for his eighteenth, and apparently spends his managerial time watching security footage of me on the days I wear skirts to work. So, I don’t believe a word he’s saying when he says, “It isn’t about the date.”

“Really?”

“It isn’t about that,” he insists.

“This is so dumb, Ricky!”

“It’s Derrick.”

“This is so dumb, Derrick.”

He flushes. “This is a business owner handling an employee issue. I’m sorry, Anna. We have to let you go.”

My ears ring. A panicky flush blankets my skin. “You’re firing me today over a pack of gum?”

“Yes.”

“Do Barb and Paul know?”

“My parents are aware, yes.” This lands like a punch to the gut. Barb and Paul know that Ricky is firing me over a pack of watermelon Trident? And they’re okay with that? Ouch.

Ricky leans in to catch my attention. “Anna? Did you hear what I said? You can turn in your set of keys, and I’ll mail out your final paycheck.”

I blink back into focus, pushing to stand. “Make sure to deduct the cost of the gum.”

“I already have.”

THE MOMENT I STEP out onto Manning and don’t see my beat-up Jetta where I usually park it, I realize that I am at the beginning of a domino train of terrible shit. My memory reels back to six hours ago when Manning was temporarily closed off to clean up a fender-bender. I’d had to park on Pico, where I’d made a mental note to move to Manning when it opened or feed the meter by eight... and I hadn’t done either.

That stupid two-dollar pack of gum has turned into a forty-five-dollar parking ticket.

But not only is there the expected white envelope under my windshield wiper, there’s also a giant black scrape down the driver’s-side door where someone apparently sideswiped me and kept going on their merry way. The dent has bent the frame, and now when I climb in, the door won’t shut all the way.

Fuck.

It never rains in April in LA, but it begins the second I get on the freeway. Big fat raindrops falling in a bratty, torrential downpour that leaves the streets slick with oil and the left side of my body soaking wet. When I pull into my apartment complex, my roommate’s boyfriend is parked in my spot, and I can’t even be mad, since they didn’t expect me home for another three hours. I block him in, turning off the ignition and resting my head against the steering wheel for a few deep breaths.

One thing at a time, Dad’s voice says in my head, deep and low. Get the car sorted, then talk to Vivi tomorrow about picking up more shifts at the café.

“It’s going to be okay,” I say to a sky that has miraculously cleared of any evidence of rain. I repeat these words to myself as I climb out of the car, as I stare at the door that won’t close and then lean back in, digging out anything that’s of any value inside, as I realize that the AirPods Dad gave me for Christmas and which I’d left in the center console have already been taken. As has the emergency ten dollars I leave there for late-night fast-food emergencies.

Why the fuck didn’t I use that ten-dollar bill to pay for the gum?

But—no! Why the fuck did Derrick fire me over something so meaningless? It’s so petty!

One thing at a time, Mental Dad reminds me.

I jog up the steps to the apartment, sliding my key into the lock, and the “Oh shit!” on the other side translates only once I swing the door open to see my roommate, Lindy, and her boyfriend Jack in a deeply compromising position on my beloved divorce couch. He’s stark naked, incredibly sweaty, and—oh God—still hard. I whip around the second what I’m seeing crystallizes. Her hands are tied to her ankles so she can’t even make a quick getaway, and he frantically works to free her while the two of them shout mortified apologies. My own apology for coming home early disappears into their chaos, and I press my forehead to the wall, wishing I could melt into it and live in the building’s foundation for the rest of my days. I would make such a good ghost.

At the sound of her bedroom door closing with a slam, I turn, leaning back against the wall, trying to decide whether the pricking behind my eyes is oncoming hysterical sobs or laughter.

When I open the fridge, I see that Bondage Lindy and Sweaty Jack have eaten the leftover lamb tagine I’d been saving for when I got home from my shift at the store. All I find inside is a half block of cheddar cheese, an old pint of half-and-half, and a couple of ancient, floppy carrots.

In my room, I fall back onto my bed and stare at the ceiling, too bummed out to even revenge-draw a cartoon Ricky. The walls around me are stacked three deep with my paintings, nearly all of them giant canvases of flowers: nature’s real masterpiece. No brush could perfectly replicate the intricacies of the shadows deep in a petal’s core, the gentle variations of color along delicate filaments, or the complex patterns of light climbing up a naked stem, but I have to try, can’t stop trying, in fact. I finished my new favorite piece yesterday morning—an enormous red poppy with a hidden galaxy of pollen in the deep black center. It’s currently leaning against the wall, partially hiding the one behind it—a tight fist of tissue-thin ranunculus petals, heavy with raindrops.

Sadly, these paintings don’t pay the bills. I have no idea what to do now, but I know I don’t want to find another job like the one at the Pick-It-Up. I don’t want to work at a 7-Eleven or a Starbucks. I don’t want to be someone’s overworked assistant, an influencer, an Uber driver, or a career waitress. I want to paint. But I am drowning in completed canvases and unable to sell a single one. The canned dream I keep kicking down the alley—supporting myself with my art—is nothing but a distant echo. I sold a few pieces after I graduated from college, even signed a manager after a buzzy art show in Venice Beach, but I haven’t had a single painting at a show in eighteen months and my manager hasn’t called in nearly a year. Whether or not I want to, I’ll have to apply at every coffee shop and convenience store I can find tomorrow.

My phone pings on the bed beside me and I immediately reach for it, hoping it’s an email from Barb and Paul at 2:14 a.m. apologizing for their dipshit son—but it isn’t. It’s a bill from the hospital for Dad’s latest chemo co-pays.

I grab a fistful of my comforter and drag it with me as I roll over, burying my face in the pillow.

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