A Sunday Diversion from my Sister Angelina!

Okay, so you all know my sister Angelina has been working on a heteromcom :).  We’ve had it on ice while I have control of the computer for Roger and Brian’s story, but since my productivity has slowed down a bit lately, I wanted to share what we have so far on this one.  We threw this cover together this a.m. so it’s VERY temporary!  This guy, though? He’s staying on the cover. Yeah, you know him.  He’s everywhere.  I’ve used him on a ton of my covers, so, well, it made sense to make him the model for Diana’s muse.  Besides, he’s SO HOT.

Hey, and if you’re a big ass publisher, and you’d like to make a deal with Angelina for this one, she’s listening!

SummerVersion1CHAPTER ONE – WAYWARD SISTERS

Every romance has a happy ending – right?  I should know, I’ve written enough of them now.  But I don’t think I get to pick the ending to this one.  This is not the book I wanted to write, but then again, since last summer, I haven’t had any choice about what I write.  He got inside me, and he’s been calling the shots ever since.

And now?  Now I’ve got to write a story where I track him down, and all is explained, and he frees me from this curse, and the story ends just like the old school romance novels, remember those?  Back when they ended with the first kiss and a HEA.  That’s Happily Ever After in the professional lingo.

If.  It’s a big if.  If Jackson-don’t-call-me-Jack’s theory is correct, and writing down all that’s happened so far will lead me to what happens next.  That’s when we find out if what happened to me was a ginormous coincidence, a subtle psychological game I’ve been playing with myself to keep writing…or if there really is a curse.  If everything that’s happened to me since the summer solstice really is magic.

 

Okay.  Deep Breath!  Start at the beginning, or at least the beginning of my new career.  Which is easy enough to find on the timeline, because it was the night I met Rose and Sherry.  Well, okay, to be bloody literal minded, it started a little before that, when I realized I had to join a book club.

My picture of what book clubs looked like was the stereotypical one, desperate housewives with big glasses of wine and very little actual book talk.  So I had been totally fine with my resolution to never join one.  But my phone call with Jacqueline Morris had forced my hand.

I’m a writer.  A good one!  All my life it was all I ever wanted to be – well, I’d always been a writer, but what I wanted was to be an Author.  That was different.  That meant you were Serious.  That this was your Career.

I’d finished a small, thoughtful novel, about a young woman’s coming of age.  “The Doldrums” was a novel about loneliness, and technology, and what happens when someone who’s lived a completely digital life gets cut off from it, and how she reconnects with humanity.  Yeah.  I know.  Real best seller material.

And when it was done, I’d sent it out into the world.  Sent it through the wringer of slush piles and query letters, farming agent listings for likely candidates, and let me tell you, it takes it out of you.  You find someone who says, hmm, that’s interesting, send it to me.  And you do.  And then you wait.  And then you write and say, how’s it going.  O hi!  I’ve got it on my to do list, so busy right now, I’ll get to it next week.  And then you wait.  And then two weeks later, you write and say, umm, hi again?  And then…crickets.

At a certain point, “no” is a blessing, because at least “no” means you don’t have to wait around for an answer any more.  Publishing and men have a lot in common – they say “I’ll call you,” and maybe they even mean it in that second.  But they don’t call you.  And when you call them, they don’t answer.  Never mind call back.  It’s funny, but I can’t help falling in love with a guy who comes right out and says, “Look, I’m not feeling this, thanks for your time but no, I won’t call you, no, we won’t do this again.”  I’m so grateful for the honesty, the termination of foolish hopes, it just breaks me.

Finally I thought, well screw it.  To hell with tradpub.  If “traditional publishing” didn’t want me, there was always selfpub.  I could edit my own work, I could learn how to create EPUBs and MOBIs and run them through Epubcheck and upload them to Amazon and Barnes & Noble and the iStore.  So I did.

And then?  Crickets.  Yeah, that’s the one thing about selfpub nobody tells you.  You read all these stories about someone who hit it big with a bestseller, and then you see the TV segment, a charming tableau of the lady in her attic, beavering away at her next hit novel, the sun streaming in like a Vermeer, down through the dormer window onto the tranquil scene – the Writer at her desk, her cats attractively arranged around her, and hey ho!  Out of the blue she had this huge hit.  You can practically see the angel with the trumpet busting down the door.  And she’s got her hand on her heart and she’s so humble, so surprised, so grateful!

Ha.  Emily Dickinson here is secretly a marketing genius, a wizard of SEO and mailing lists and street teams and blogrolling.  Her innocent, shocked look is part of the plan, too.  Trust me on this.  I learned the truth of it soon enough.

I didn’t want to be a salesman, a promoter, a character on “Mad Men.”  I wanted to be a writer!  I just wanted to write!  And I was just coming to grips with my failure, with the grim looming fact that my job at the liposuction clinic, or another just like it, was going to be my forever and ever destiny, when I got an email from Jacqueline.

Dear Diana, I just read “The Doldrums,” and I loved it!  Your characters are so real, your dialog is so crisp, and the ending is so satisfying.  I’d love to talk to you about it.

Omigod omigod omigod.  An editor from a Big House wanted to talk to me!  This was it, my big break!  I couldn’t believe one of the seven people who’d bought the book (I checked my sales numbers daily) was a New York Editor.

I called in sick the day of the phone call.  I had so much to do to get ready.  Well, honestly, I spent most of my time polishing my imaginary “Fresh Air” interview.  I put all the right questions in Terri Gross’ mouth, and gave all the right answers.  I was so clever!  Yes, Terri, it was a great honor to receive the National Book Award, and I’m so glad you love the book so much that you have chosen to devote a whole week of your show to it.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Diana, it’s Jacqueline Morris from GPH.”  Her voice was cool, brisk, one of those people who always uses her full name in conversation.

“Hi, how are you?”

“Great.  I loved ‘The Doldrums.’

“Thank you, so much.  I…”

“I’m really excited about getting some more information from you today.”

“Okay…”

“So tell me about your strategy.”

Great!  All my well rehearsed Fresh Air answers would come in handy already.  “Well, I’d been kicking the idea around for a few years.  I really wanted to explore what happens to a driven young woman when she has no choice but to slow down and…”

“No, your marketing strategy.  I’ve been Googling you and I’m having a hard time finding you, actually.  Are you on Twitter under a different handle?”

“Um, no.  I’m not on Twitter, actually.”

“Hmm.  I see you have a Facebook page, but it’s closed, friends only.  What’s the name of your Facebook author page?”

“Author page?”

Silence.  Two seconds of silence, all that a busy New York Editor could afford to spare.  “Okay.  Well, I’ll tell you, if you don’t know, your social media presence is a pretty important factor in whether or not I can get you a contract.”

“It is?”

“Yes,” she said, with a half-exasperated half-contemptuous tone. “But I really appreciate your time.  Drop me a line when you’ve…”

“Wait!  I don’t get it.  I’m a writer.  I write.  I don’t want to selfpub.  I want to be with a big house where you guys do all…that stuff for me.  That’s what you do, right?”

She sighed.  “Not in years, hon.  Listen.  Get on Goodreads, be an active participant, read the book of the month in your genre, contribute to the conversation.  Join some local book clubs, introduce yourself as a writer.  Get on Twitter, follow other writers you like.  Put out a Createspace version of the book so you have a paper copy you can sign at readings.”

“Look, I have a full time job.  I get up at four o’clock in the morning to write.  Which means I go to bed at nine at night.  I have like two to three hours of time in my day left over.  I don’t have time or energy to do all that!”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you.  This is the reality of it.  There are a lot of books out there.  Some aren’t as good as yours.  Most aren’t, to be honest.  But their authors are selling themselves.  And this is a business, and that’s the nature of the business now.  Let’s keep in touch.”

You’re a great girl.  I’ll call you.

Crap.

 

I was thirty years old now, officially out of the running for all those “30 under 30” magazine features about (physically as well as creatively) hot young things.  I should have a track record by now, some measure of reputation, but then again, how do you get a reputation if you never leave the house?

So, okay, I’ll give this a shot, I thought weakly.  I’ll find a book club.  I’d ask Jenna, my BWFFALAWWT.  You’ve got one, right?  Your Best Work Friend Forever As Long As We Work Together?  She was the PA, Physician Assistant, and we’d hit it off my first day.

The last place I’d ever thought I’d land a job was at Ravishing Rose Medical Clinical Spa.  But, it was a job managing the billing, a step up from my last series of jobs, and at least at the beginning, I thought it would be a good deal.  The hours were certainly right – 8 to 5, an hour for lunch, with patients in the morning only.  Dr. Bob was an enthusiastic golfer, and was long gone by 3 every day.

“Welcome to Ravenous Hose,” Jenna said on my first day.  She was short, slim, and astonishingly strong – strong enough to push and roll 300 pound ladies onto, around, and off of operating tables, a definite job requirement.  Her black curly hair was pulled back tight, but would clearly explode into a full 70s level Afro with a flick of the wrist.

“I’m sorry?”

She took her pen and made a stabbing motion, mimicking the lipo wand’s fat-pulverizing action.  “Squitchy, squitchy.  Sucky, sucky.”

I laughed.  “You make it sound musical.”

“The opera’s not over till the fat lady sings.”

“Well, from what I’ve seen today, she’ll definitely sing when she gets the bill.”

So when I told Jenna that I wanted, needed, to join a book club, she squeaked.  “Viv and I have a little one!  We’ve only got four people, we could totally use a fifth.”  She looked at me warily, as if she was about to confess something and wanted to see if she could trust me.  “It’s a romance book club, is that okay?”

“Sure,” I said, smothering my disappointment.  And only four people?  Including Jenna?  Not exactly the ticket to a broad audience I was supposed to be punching to get into New York’s graces.  “I’m surprised, though?”

She lifted a plucked eyebrow.  “I don’t strike you as the romantic type?”

“A tough broad like you?  Not what I’d think of as the romance novel type.”

She snorted.  “Type?  Really?  Is there a type who doesn’t want to fall in love?”

I flushed.  “Sorry.  Snob attack.”

“Indeed.  Look, it’s not Tolstoy, fine.  Do you go home after a long day at the clinic and read Tolstoy and fantasize about Boris or Count Vronsky?”

“No.  I watch ‘Sons of Anarchy’ and fantasize about Charlie Hunnam.”

“There you go.  So, you’ve got two weeks to read ‘Blanched.’  We meet at Viv’s house.  You know Viv.”

I nodded.  Vivian was Jenna’s sister, as big and as tall as Jenna was little.  One of them had to be adopted, or they had to be sisters from a different mister, but I never asked.

I went home that night and downloaded “Blanched.”  One word titles were huge, I noticed as I perused the bestseller list.  And titles had a lot of dysfunction words– broken, damaged, ruined, burned.  Not exactly the sort of light reading I’d expected.  The author was named, allegedly, Lucy Freud.  Her picture was very sultry, in an 80s big-blond-hair way.  She looked like Morgan Fairchild.  “Blanched” was self-published, and I suppressed my jealousy at its single-digit sales ranking – not #1 but damn close.

I flopped out on the couch and sighed.  “Okay.  Research.”  And with that attitude I settled in.

It was the story of a young woman chef, fresh out of cooking school, who’s just started work in the kitchen of a meteoric, demanding genius.  Not the Gordon Ramsey type, all cursing and yelling, more like Thomas Keller, the cool, quiet, distant, total perfectionist – right down to how evenly you chopped the vegetables nobody would ever see, because they went into the soup stock.  If, that is, Thomas Keller looked like Clive Owen and had a Dark Past and a total Mr. Rochester vibe.  The work is hard, he’s cruel, but it’s all for the best because really he’s trying to make her a better chef.  It was like Richard Gere and Louis Gossett Jr. in “An Officer and a Gentleman” if they’d kissed instead of Gere and Debra Winger.

The kitchen bits were clearly written from experience, and the love affair may well have been too.  The thing that kept throwing me out of the story were, well, the little things.  The spelling errors. The repetition of a thought or a joke someone had told three chapters earlier.  The mental roadblocks I’d hit in the form of weird, long, twisted and grammatically tortured sentences.  The upfront cramming of TMI exposition in place of character development.  All the things, in other words, I didn’t do, knew better than to do.

And okay.  I was not a large hearted and generous person.  I was full of RAGE!  How could she be so famous?  So rich!  It wasn’t…fair.

But after I finished it, I had to admit.  It was…not terrible.  The characters were real.  The situation was believable.  When they finally do it, the sex was…well, it was pretty damn hot.  The villain was a bit cardboard, but as a plot device, I’d allow it, objection overruled.

I had my notes folded in my coat pocket when I got to Viv’s house the next Friday.  Just in case I needed to go to the bathroom and refresh myself on my speech before it was my turn to weigh in.

How was I going to do that?  Was I supposed to wait my turn and then say, I don’t know, “Well, as an author myself…”  If I were writing that scene, I’d say, damn girl, you sound like you’re made of wood, you’re so stiff.  No, that wasn’t going to work out for me.

Viv opened the door for me.  “Diana Gale, as I live and breathe.  Come on in, girl.”  She reminded me, I’m slightly horrified to say, of Mrs. Butterworth, the syrup lady.  If, that is, Mrs. Butterworth wore a t shirt that said FAT BITCHES RULE.

Viv lived in a small, charming little two bedroom cottage, with a very cozy living room, so yeah, five people made it a full house.  I nodded to the two women sitting on one of the couches, a wary but not hostile distance between them.  One of them was in a serious navy blue business suit and killer heels, clearly here straight from a late evening at the office.  She was slim and trim, with long, wavy, expensively styled raven tresses, and sharp brown eyes that didn’t match her friendly hello.  The other was in some kind of Stevie Nicks outfit, a white lacy thing that would have been right at home at a Renaissance Faire.  Her hair was a bit frizzy and she wore granny glasses that practically screamed “Hippie.”

“Y’all, this is Diana, Jenna’s friend.  Diana, this is Rose,” she said, indicating the business woman, “and Sherry,” at which the hippie nodded.

“Nice to meet you.”  They agreed with that statement, and made room for me in the middle of the couch.

“Can I get you a glass of wine?”

“Please.”  The decanter-sized glass she handed me had a smoky red in it, something that had sat in a cask for a long time, with an almost moldy scent to it.  So it probably cost a lot, as it came from France in one of those bottles with a tan label and red-and-black gothic script.  It wasn’t to my taste, but that was a good thing, since I couldn’t suck it down and make a fool of myself.  Also, it was December, and cold, even in Santa Vera, just northeast of San Diego – far enough away from the ocean to make winter chilly, especially at night.

“Well, what did y’all think?” Viv asked to get the ball rolling.  “I loved it.  And oh, I looooved Devin.  I loved that scene where he’s behind her?  Guiding her while he shows her how to chop stuff the way he does?”

“That was pretty cold shit,” Jenna said.  “He was all grabbing her rough and banging her hands down with that knife.”

“Well, some of us like a bit of rough, you know.”

“Yeah,” Jenna said, a dark cloud on her brow.  “I do.”

Rose stepped into the suddenly weird and awkward silence as the two sisters glared at each other.  “I’m really impressed with how she structured it.  She really stuck to the matrix, which is why it works so well.”

“The matrix?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Rose said.  “The seven point story matrix?  You’re a writer, you’ve heard of it, right?”

I tried not to wrinkle my nose.  What was that, some kind of write by numbers thing?  “No, I haven’t.”

“Hook, Plot Turn 1, Pinch 1, Midpoint, Pinch 2, Plot Turn 2, Resolution.  You can take any successful novel and break it out and you’ll see the matrix.”

“So it’s a formula,” I said, unable to hide my literary disdain.

Rose nodded.  “Yep.  A formula that works.  Harry Potter?  Star Wars?  The Matrix?  You name it.  They all adhere to the rules.”

“Huh,” I said.

“I loved the relationship,” Sherry said, speaking at last.  “The way they start out from this adversarial student-teacher relationship, it’s like a rookie-veteran cop bromance thing to start, not the usual, you know, drawing room pissy prissy instant dislike thing in your classic romance.”

We all looked at her.  To be honest, I hadn’t pegged her as very acute.  Spacy Tracy had been my initial verdict – you know the kind, tree hugging, unshaved everywhere, quick with a teardrop.

“Yeah,” Rose nodded.  “It’s different.  But not too different that it doesn’t appeal.  And, she had one hell of a marketing campaign.  She carpet-bombed every major chef in the country, showing up at their kitchens with signed copies for the whole staff, she got quotes out of Danny Mayer and Eric Ripert and Bourdain…”

“Sounds like you’re more a fan of the creativity behind the marketing campaign than whatever went into the book,” I said, the heady wine going to my head, and my anger at my own dismal economic failure clawing its way out.

Rose looked at me disdainfully.  “Isn’t it a measure of the quality of a book that it gives people what they want?”

“What the people want,” I said, “is more of the same.  They want a writer to write the same book, every year, over and over, change the names and nothing else.  Who wouldn’t go mad doing that?”

“Lots of people,” Rose sneered.  “People who make a living writing.”

Ouch.  “Well, I don’t make a living at it.  But,” I lied, “I’d rather sell seven copies of something good and original and truthful than just…write whatever sells.  And besides, the quality of the writing left something to be desired.  A lot to be desired, actually.”

We hadn’t noticed that Jenna and Viv were in the kitchen, talking in low voices, that suddenly got louder.  “And he asked me, not you!” Jenna shouted.

Viv shouted back, massing menacingly above her sister.  “Yeah, and you said no.  So there it was, just waiting for someone to pick it up.”

“Yeah and you picked it up and put it right in your coochie, didn’t you?”

Viv slapped Jenna, who squeaked, but then, like a little dog fighting a big dog who just doesn’t realize that he’s a little dog, Jenna jumped her.

We all stood up, horrified as pots and pans rattled and clanked.  But they separated before any of us could move in and try to break it up.  “Get out!” Viv screamed.  “Out!”

“With pleasure!” Jenna shouted back.  She stormed out the door and slammed it behind her.

Viv glared at us.  “Show’s over.”

“Right,” Sherry said, cool as a cucumber.  “Thanks for having us.”

Rose and I muttered something to the same effect.  We stood outside in the cold and looked at each other.

“Well,” I said.  “I guess book club became Fight Club.  I didn’t know whether to, I don’t know, do something or…” I let my hands flail to indicate my sense of helplessness at the scene.

Rose snorted.  “Family drama.  Never interfere in family drama.”

“Well,” Sherry said.  “I think this book club is dead.  But,” she smiled, “I do live close by.  And I have wine.”

Rose and I were both preparing our boilerplate no thanks statements when Sherry added, “My dad owns Broadmoor Imports.  So I have a pretty good selection.”

Rose and I looked at each other.  Broadmoor was the leading importer of the brands of wine and other booze that you see on the top shelf in the store, the name you saw in tiny letters at the bottom of the label on the back of the bottle.  Most of what they imported wasn’t even carried by your ordinary supermarkets, because the price was higher than most of their customers would pay.  And it was always good stuff.  Very, very good.

“My dear,” Rose said, taking her arm, “lead the way.”

 

Sherry’s house wasn’t quite as hippie as I’d imagined, but was definitely a musician’s home.  There was a guitar on a stand and a lot of framed rock concert posters on the walls, since it turned out her husband was in the music business in some fashion that Sherry was deliberately vague about, and I didn’t pry.

“So,” Rose said, after we started our second glass of a superb Cabernet.  “Tell me what’s wrong with ‘Blanched.’”

“Okay,” I said.  I pulled out my phone, to access my bookmarked version of the novel.  “Let’s see.  Here’s a description on page 7 of Alex that has her eye to eye with the produce guy, fighting about an order, and it says ‘he towered above most women, but not Alex, and so he couldn’t intimidate her as easily.’  So he’s a tall guy.  But then there’s this line on page 150, ‘Alex looked up into Devin’s face, hovering above her like the sun.’  So, how tall is this guy, is he a giant or something?  If he’s taller than the guy who towers above women, he has to be, right?”

I went on from there.  A hostess with green eyes that flashed, then sparkled, then glittered, at various points in the book.  “We get it, right?  Why the repetition?  It’s lazy.  She’s a bitch, okay, but give us something besides her eyes to show it.”

Then there was the major crime.  “Look at the frontloading.  ‘Alex had gone to CIA despite her parents’ wishes and found that she loved the competitive environment.  Soon she was at the top of her class and being recruited by top chefs around the country.  Now she’d landed a job in Devin’s kitchen.’”

“So?” Rose asked.

“So, you need to show, not tell.  It’s like…journalism when you write like that, just shoveling someone’s life resume in without building it out.  Teasing it out.  Letting us get to know a person the way you would in real life.  Bit by bit.”

“Hmm,” Rose said.

“But she does a good job with show, not tell, with the romance,” Sherry added.  “There’s no spark at all between them at first, it’s just a job.  She thinks of him like any other boss, and he thinks of her like any other new chef, they don’t even see each other as attractive or as even potential sexual beings.  It’s not, you know, they-hate-but-secretly-love-each-other.”

Rose and I laughed, knowing just the kind of stories she was talking about.  As the conversation went on, I realized that I liked these ladies.  My foray into self-promotion had clearly failed, but if I got two friends out of it – two friends, more to the point, who read books and thought about them and could talk about them, well, that was worth more to me than a couple of sales anyway.

“So,” Sherry said as we all started to yawn, realizing that it was late on a Tuesday night and work was looming ahead of us the next day.  “Shall we do this again?  Start our own book club?”

“Yeah,” Rose said.  “I think so.”

“Me too,” I said, and we clinked our glasses.

 

Our next meeting was the following Friday, so we didn’t have to worry about work the next day.  Rose had chosen our first book – “Her Billionaire Shifter,” by Venus Amore (seriously).

Sherry had looked uncomfortable, and I’d raised an eyebrow.  “Um.  This sounds…kind of crappy.”

Rose flushed.  “Well, humor me on this one, would you?  Please?”

I could see the effort it took for someone like Rose to use the P word.  “Fine, as long as we take turns picking books.”  Maybe the book had some redeeming value I couldn’t see.  And besides, it would be fun to sharpen my critical claws on it.

That Friday night, I cabbed it to Sherry’s house to find a far busier scene than the one the previous Tuesday.  There were a lot of guys on the front porch, on the front lawn, barbecuing and strumming guitars, copious beards keeping their faces warm in the winter chill.  Some nodded absently at me when I made eye contact or were too involved in their heated conversations to even notice me as I slipped inside.  Musicians are hot, let’s face it.  Put a guitar in any guy’s hands and his sexual attractiveness goes up about five notches in my book.

I found Sherry in the kitchen with a slim, broody-looking dude in a Decemberists T shirt, his dark curly hair matching his dark eyes.  “Hey,” Sherry said.  “Diana, this is my husband Jeremy.”

Jeremy nodded, no handshake offered, too cool for school. “Hey.”

“ ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ is one of my favorites,” I said, referring to a very long story-song by the Decemberists.

Jeremy’s face lit up, transforming from a dull, too-cool-for-school look to the enthusiast’s wild grin.  “Hell, yeah.  Nice to meet you.”  Now he shook my hand.

“Same here.”

Sherry beamed.  “We’re in the basement, it’s quieter.”

Her large finished basement was darkly paneled, and doubled as Jeremy’s recording studio, though there was enough room for not only sound mixers, a drum set, and amps, but also a grey sectional couch over which Sherry had thrown a cover, presumably because it was splattered with beer stains and cigarette ash from all the musicians who’d flopped on it previously.

“Wow,” I said.  “Nice setup.  Is he in a band?”

“Sort of,” she said, blushing.  “Not so much anymore.”

“So what does he do for a living?” Rose asked, ever the practical one.

“He, uh.  He names bands.”

“He names bands,” Rose repeated.

“Yeah.  They come to him and he names them.  They pay him.  It’s…he’s got a talent for it.”

“What bands has he named?” I asked.

“The Unsolved Murders?  My Cat From Hell?”

“I guess I don’t keep up with music so much anymore,” I admitted.

Rose picked up a vinyl album and yelped at the cover.  “Caring Dad Spanks and Cuddles?”

Sherry smiled.  “Yeah, that was one of his.”

“I know these guys,” Rose said, looking at the picture on another album.  “This guy works in the mailroom at my office.  Really?  The Meat Department?  They’re like total Vegans, how’d he pick that name?”

She laughed.  “Well, that’s…he, uh, grew up on a cattle ranch.  So he has this thing against vegetarians.  He has a thing for making them take names like Hot and Juicy, or Double Stack.”

We all cracked up.  “And they take it?” I asked disbelievingly.

She nodded.  “That’s the rule.  You come to Jeremy, he gives you a name, you must take it.  Everybody in the business would know if you didn’t.  But, yeah, the Vegans don’t come around much anymore.”

Sherry produced an already decanted Bordeaux and the correct wine glasses to go with it.  We took that first sip, the one that makes your brain go “aaaaaah!”

“So,” Rose said.  “‘Her Billionaire Shifter.’  What did you think?”

Sherry and I looked at each other, each letting, wishing the other would go first.

“Come on, now,” Rose egged us on.  “Diana, I know you have an opinion.”

“Well,” I said, pulling my phone out.  “Actually, I do.  Right on the first page, there’s this sentence.  ‘Jacqueline uncomfortably shifted as her gown of tulle crackled beneth her.  What had possessed her to allow Mr. Skylerton to demand that she wear this to a job interview?’  So, first of all, ‘beneth.’  If you let a misspelling get by you on the first page, it looks pretty lazy.  Also, grammar – shifted uncomfortably would be correct there.  Also, it’s just a bit clunky, the three ‘to’s’ in the second sentence.”

And on I went, pulling no punches, tearing the stuffing out of someone’s little teddy bear.  “And finally,” I said, “the dialogue is terrible.  ‘Now, slave, you will learn to please me, or learn the meaning of pain.’  Really?  I’d laugh my ass off at a man who talked to me like that, whether I was handcuffed or not.”

Rose was silent.  “Okay.  Sherry?”

“Well…” she said tentatively.  “I’m not really qualified to pick up on what Diana did.  But, honestly, I didn’t buy the romance.”

“Why not?”

“There’s no…conflict, really.  And no motive for her to love him.  He’s an asshole, and she falls in love with him even though all we’ve seen is his…assholeism.”  We all cracked up at that.

“He doesn’t have a tortured past, or a tragic flaw, or any chink that would let you in, or even let you think you had a chance of getting in there.  You’d think being a shifter would be a dark secret but it’s never treated like one, he just shifts back and forth from wolf to man and it’s no big deal.  It should, you know, hurt, mentally or physically, so she can have some sympathy for him.  And he smirks a lot.  I mean, a lot.  The author, she, he, whoever, just thinks, well, he’s a billionaire and he’s handsome, and that’s good enough.”

“And,” I chimed in, “how many handsome billionaires are there really?  Most of them are short, fat, bald and ugly.  And assholes.”

“But,” Sherry said.  “The sex scenes?  Other than the smirks?  Hot.  Very hot.  Seriously.”

Rose looked at me.  I shrugged.  “Well, okay yeah.”  It was true; the way Ms. Amour had written about Tyler Skylerton’s scent, his breath, his big warm hands, all the little physical sensations the heroine encountered, had got me a bit warm myself.

“But,” I said, flipping through bookmarks on my phone.  “In this one scene, he’s shifted back to human right before he takes her, and then after lots of tying up and little torture bits, he ‘takes off his belt’ to spank her butt with.  If he was just a wolf, why does he still have pants on?”

Sherry and I laughed, but Rose didn’t.  A creeping suspicion began to dawn on me.  “And what did you think of it, Rose?” I asked her.

She looked me in the eye, appraising, and she knew the game was up.

“Okay.”  She threw her hands up, ready to be arrested.  “I give up.  I’m Venus Amour.”

Sherry squeaked, a hand flying to her mouth.  “Oh, Rose, I’m sorry!”

“Sorry I wrote such a crappy book?”

“I’m sorry I was so hard on it.  I didn’t mean…”

“No,” Rose sighed.  “I did this little experiment on purpose.  To get an honest reaction out of strangers.  Be careful what you wish for, right?”

“Look, it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read,” I started.

“I know you’re a pro, Diana.  I read your book.”

“You did?”  So that explained the mysterious eighth copy I’d sold last week.

“Yeah.  And it’s good.  Very good.”

“Thanks.  Didn’t sell nearly as well as yours, though.”  Naturally after reading “Her Billionaire Shifter,” I’d checked its progress on NovelRank, and been heartily dismayed to see that in the month it had been out, this slim volume had sold 1,274 digital copies on Amazon at $2.99, for a royalty of approximately $2,500.  Or 150 times as much as I’d made on my years-long labor of love.  Oh yeah, and that was just on Amazon.  Never mind Barnes and Noble, or iTunes, or anywhere else.

“What did you do to promote ‘The Doldrums’?” Rose asked.

“Other than write the best book I possibly could?  Nothing.”

Rose nodded.  “My day job is marketing.  And I marketed the hell out of this one.  Mailing lists, blog rolling, book bombs, giveaways, review copies.  That’s the difference.  I know it’s not great.  I’m not a great writer,” she said.  “But I’m a hell of a salesman.”

“Well, congratulations.  Seriously,” I said.  “I envy you that.  I just don’t…it’s not me.”

“You don’t want to get out there and connect with your fans?”

“I do!” I said, and it was true, I did.  “I just don’t…want to chase people down the street, begging them to be my fans.”

“I bet you could write one of these.”

“No,” I said.  “I don’t…” Then I started thinking about it.

“I think we should try it,” Sherry said.  “All three of us.  Each one of us should write a romance.  Why just…read someone else’s?”

“You write?” Rose asked her.

“I do.  Liner notes, album reviews, concert reviews…” She stopped as she saw us looking at her.  “What, did you guys think I was just some groupie?”  She grinned.  “‘I’m with the band’?”

“Sorry,” I said.  “Yeah.”

She shrugged.  “No worries.”

“Okay,” Rose said.  “We all write a romance.  On the same theme.  Let me think.  Billionaires, shifters, they’re going out of fashion.”  She snapped her fingers.  “I’ve got it.  You know what’s really hot right now, no pun intended?”

“I’ll bite,” Sherry said.

“Firemen.”

 

 

CHAPTER TWO – YOUR LITTLE SECRET SOCIETY

 

I should play poker.  I didn’t spray my wine or gasp or shout.  But that was perfect.  Because of Ryder, my kind-of-boyfriend.  That’s a good term, isn’t it?  Makes another good acronym, my KOB.

Oh right, sorry to get your hopes up.  No, he’s not a fireman.  He’s a fire inspector.  Yeah, not quite as glamorous, I know.  He gets to wear a uniform, though.  And if I needed to research what a fireman’s day is really like, the lingo and the slang, the equipment and the training, the sensibility and attitude, well, there was Ryder.

And I did – need to do the research.  Our friendly contest was still a contest.  And when I got home that night, I’d read (okay, skimmed) some of the “fireman romance” best sellers and been sadly disappointed.  Rose had already clued us in on something I’d never thought of in my life – “keywords.”  The formula was simple, really.  You found what was selling, and you wrote to it.  And it wasn’t even about the title having “fireman” in it so much as it was the metadata you attached to your listing, so that people searching the web for “hot fireman, fireman romance, fireman love story,” whatever, got directed to your book.  And some of these stories were pretty much cut and paste stories with no backstory or detail other than, “Here’s Blaze, he’s a firefighter, he’s really hot and so are all the other firemen, they all live hotly together in a firehouse with their shirts off a lot but there’s nothing gay about it, here’s a fire and they put it out.”

Screw that.  If I was going to create a firefighter, he was going to be the real deal.  And Ryder would be a willing participant in my research program.

“It’s complicated” doesn’t really describe me and Ryder.  It’s uncomplicated would be better.  We date sometimes, we sleep together sometimes, when we’re lonely or horny.  We’re friends, but not best friends.  We like each other enough to hang out, but not enough to stare into each other’s eyes and see the future.  It’s not so bad.  There’s no grief, no drama, no heartbreak.

“What’s up?” he answered the phone, laconic as usual.

“I need to pick your brain.  I need to research the secret lives of firefighters.”

“You could watch a couple seasons of ‘Rescue Me.’”

“Seriously.”

“Hmm.”  I was used to that from him, the long pauses.  He was the child of Quaker Hippies who’d raised him on slow food, slow talking, and who’d named him…oh God I can hardly bring myself to say it.  Ryder Storm.  I know!  With the name alone, he’s totally ready to be the hero of a romance.  Only he doesn’t have a dark tempestuous secret or a sweet savage bone in his body.  He doesn’t ride a Harley.  He drives a Prius.  And he’s fair haired, and carries a couple of pounds too many from driving around most of the day.

But he has a strange sense of humor, and he’s a good tipper, and he doesn’t say he’s gonna do stuff he doesn’t do.  The only real objection I had was when I told people I was dating “Ryder, the Fire Inspector,” and yeah, they totally saw the soap opera version and were all ooh, oh!  Yeah, yeah.  I wished he’d been named John or Jake or Joe or something – I just have this thing about those soap names, I roll my eyes every time I hear one.

“Well, I know of a couple books.  And there’s a pretty good documentary you could watch.”

“Pen is ready.”

“I think you’ll owe me dinner for this.”

“I see.  You don’t eat, you don’t work.”

“To reverse the old aphorism, yeah.”

“Well, you know how much I love to cook.”

“Yeah, I do.  So how does Stannard’s sound?  Sevenish?”

“Perfect.”

 

Ryder had traded his uniform for khakis and a blue polo.  I smiled when I saw that he’d set a book on my place setting, “Working Fire” by Zac Unger.

“Zac.  Now that’s a hot soapy romance firefighter name right there.”

“This is pretty well thumbed, and the consensus is that it’s pretty realistic.”

“Thanks.”

“I did some research online as well.  I emailed you a list of titles.”

“Wow, busy day.”  I knew it wasn’t, it was December after all and everything at every office was slowing down for the holidays.

“Yes, swamped with work.  I barely managed to make time to do you this huge exhausting favor.  So what’s this about?”

I filled him in.  Unlike me, Ryder does play poker; his face can be almost dully expressionless when he wants – enough to make the unwary think he’s not too bright.   So I couldn’t know what was on his mind, even after knowing and semi-dating him for a year now, until he spoke it.

“Are you thinking about doing this professionally?  Writing romances?”

“No!  Oh, God, no.  I’m not cut out for that.  I’m a ‘serious novelist,’ remember,” I said, my air quotes apparent.  “It’s just a friendly wager.”

“It’s not the worst way to make a living.”

“Not gonna happen.”

Ryder looked at me for a second before shrugging.  I knew what that meant.  He didn’t believe me but it wasn’t important enough to question it.

“You’re probably better off doing one of two things.  Either you can set it in an imaginary fire department somewhere, and get off the hook with the research for the most part, or you can do FDNY.  Because really, that’s the subject of most of the books.”

“I’ve got no objection to research.  I learned to sail for ‘The Doldrums,’ remember.”  Well, sort of.  I took a sailing class and failed miserably at it, but I did pass the written test afterward so, research accomplished.

“Yeah, you should take me out on a boat sometime,” he smiled, both of us knowing the truth of it.

“Well, I’m not planning on fighting any fires, so I think reading a few books will do the trick.”

We ate our steaks and chatted idly about stuff after that.  At the waiter’s suggestion of dessert, Ryder looked at me with a raised eyebrow.  Eating dessert meant I’d be too loggy for any further…activity.

“No,” I said, “I think just the check.”

“Definitely,” Ryder said, and my loins flared a bit.  Just a bit, you know, but hey.  A girl’s gotta have some fun.

 

Rose had given us two weeks to write our story, or at least have a strong start on it.  I’d squawked in disbelief at the timeline.  “It took me two years to write ‘The Doldrums’!”

“Well, think of this as more like…journalism.  You’re on deadline.  There’s a hot story, a hot topic, and if you don’t jump on it while it’s hot, you’re left behind.  A year from now, nobody will be reading about firemen, so get on it.”

And I had to admit, I was suffering from “post-pubbing depression.”  You spend so much time and energy on a book, and your pace picks up as you get closer to the finish line, and then it’s done, and you publish it and then…nothing.  I didn’t have another idea in the pipeline, and that was not good.

So yeah, it felt good to start going to bed at 9 and waking up at 4 am again, getting enough coffee in me to jump start the juices.  I’d done my reading, seen “Brotherhood: Life in the FDNY,” and felt confident that my fireman would feel real.

The words danced out of my fingers, the plot unfurling as rookie fireman David (no soap names!) earned his place on the team, did his job, grew as a person as he came to terms with the fact that danger wasn’t as romantic as he thought it was, that danger was something you managed with training, strategy, cooperation and coordination, not individual, Hollywood style heroics.  That real danger didn’t turn you into Gary Cooper – real danger made you shit your pants.

The story was good.  I was really into David.  To be honest, I put a lot of Ryder into his older (but not too old) mentor, or at least what I thought Ryder would be like as a firefighter.  I liked the dynamic of their friendship, and I really enjoyed the research.

There was just one problem.  The romance bit.  Yeah, that.  The whole reason I was supposed to be writing this.

Maybe that was why I was happy, or at least content, with Ryder.  I wasn’t a romantic, I didn’t squeeze my pillow and dream of knights in shining armor, never had – even as a teenage girl the poster on my wall had been James Joyce, not the Backstreet Boys.  There were no enormous emotional demands with Ryder; we just hung out and had a good time and when we were horny, we did it.  Then we slept together because it was nice, and if we had breakfast the next morning, great, if not, fine.

But that meant it was…hard, writing a love scene.  Writing…okay, feelings.  Romantic feelings.  Painful longings.  My main character in ‘The Doldrums’ had been introspective, had been out on a sailboat by herself, coming to terms with, you know, stuff.  There was no love interest.  Maybe that’s why it didn’t sell.

I’d tried to make the mentor old enough to have a daughter, but that didn’t work for me – too Hollywood, too “Armageddon.”  I’d tried to make the romantic lead a female firefighter, but that didn’t work – she ended up being buddies with the guys, one of them, not a love interest.  I’d tried to have him rescue her from a fire and that’s how they meet – no, God, talk about corny.

I was stuck, and it was the Due Date.  So I finally threw up my hands and thought, well, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, So It Goes.  I emailed what I’d done to Rose and Sherry, knowing theirs would come to me in short order and we’d have a few days to review each other’s work before our gathering.  And it wasn’t like I was going to be executed for failing to get it right.  Right?

 

We were all nervous, clearly, when we met on a Friday night, and the wine flowed liberally before we turned to the subject at hand.  After about two glasses apiece, we were ready for the Judgment Of Others.

This time, we were all much more careful than we’d been with our allegedly unknown writer of “Her Billionaire Shifter.”  None of us wanted to be harsh; this wasn’t some kill-each-other’s-children writing workshop where the goal was to impress the distant, toweringly remote father figure of a teacher.  This was a few gals on a lark.  Yeah, that, definitely.

“It’s weird,” Rose said.  “Opening yourself up to people you barely know.”

I nodded.  “Yeah, scary, huh?”

Sherry frowned.  “But you do it every day.  I do it every day.  Every time someone picks up something we wrote, you’re opening yourself up to them.  To apathy, or criticism, or just mean comments….”

“Yeah,” I said, finally able to slow down and savor the taste of the wine now that I had my buzz on.  “But they’re not in the same room with me.”

“…Or maybe something good happens,” Sherry continued.  “Maybe they love what you did.  Maybe you actually get rewarded for putting yourself out there.  They write you, or write a review, or pass it on to a friend.”

We thought about that for a minute.  Maybe putting yourself out there didn’t have to end in tears every time.

Rose sighed and took charge.  “Okay.  I’m ready.”  She pulled her scarf off her neck and tied it around her eyes, putting her hands behind her back.  “Fire away.”

“You go first,” I said to Sherry.

“Okay.  Well, I can see you did some more spell checking on this one.  Some of the grammar is still funky.  I think Diana could speak more to that though, I just noticed that some of sentences were hard to follow, like they were…jumbled up.  I’m not a grammarian so… But!” she said brightly.  “The plot was good.  It moved really fast, and wow.  You wrote a great action scene.  The big fire scene, where Zane has to rescue the cop?  It was exciting!”

I nodded.  “Yeah.  It was.  Really fast-paced, well-choreographed, very cinematic.  And that’s a compliment, trust me.  It could have used some real details about what a fireman does in those situations.  You don’t have them putting on their oxygen masks, for instance, which is critical.  They never do that in Hollywood movies because then you can’t see the stars’ faces, but you’d die of smoke inhalation pretty fast if you didn’t in a scene like yours.  You’ve got to ‘read the fire,’ see where it’s originating, figure out if there are potentially explosive chemicals around, how best to handle the situation.”

“You really did your research,” Rose said.

“Yeah, I love that stuff.  It really helps me with my characters.”

“David is awesome,” Rose said to me.  “He’s so…complex.  You really made him a real person.  When you talked about how his morning was going, and you just slowly introduced the fact that his parents had died in a fire a year earlier…wow.  The way that was constructed.  I mean, I’ve heard that you’re not supposed to start a book with someone waking up, but…you did it.  You made it work.”

“Thanks,” I flushed, both thrilled with the compliment and embarrassed that I’d forgotten one of the basic rules of writing.

“And I liked that ‘who will she choose’ angle in yours,” Rose said to Sherry, all of us warming to the way this was going.  “Your romance was…realer than mine.  The feelings were…intense.  And I could feel the emotional heat between Heath and Jane, and Jane and Dexter.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “There was so much…feeling, yeah, that.”

“Thanks,” Sherry said, “but Rose’s sex scene was…yikes.”

We all laughed.  I’d felt more than a tingle reading it myself.

“So,” Rose said.  “Mutual admiration society over, let’s do the bad news.”

“Well,” I said to Rose, “as Sherry mentioned, your grammar needs improvement.  The plot moves fast but there should be more character development.  More internal life.”  I looked at Sherry.  “You’ve got great feelings, but the dialogue is a little stilted, maybe not quite realistic?  More what people would say in books than in real life?  But God, you’re totally unafraid to go there emotionally.  I mean, there’s some freakin’ pain in those people.”

“And your dialogue is awesome,” Sherry said to me.  “But…you give David this backstory, and then you never really talk about how that feels, what those losses do to him, all the feelings are kind of numbed up and you never, you know, unnumb them, make him come to terms with them.  It’s all very ‘New Yorker’ story, you know, ‘Margaret goes to the mall, she stares at the signs.’  Nobody feels anything because they feel too much, right, but that’s a cop out, no offense.  And you, I mean, I know you didn’t finish in time, but it feels like…like that was because you couldn’t come up with a romance.  You couldn’t ‘go there’ in the emotional department.”

“What she said,” Rose added admiringly.

I nodded.  The truth didn’t hurt so much when it had a spoonful of sugar in it.  “You know, we’re like the three witches.  We could put all our stories in one pot and brew them up into one hell of a romance.”

Silence.

The kind of silence that comes with Eureka moments.

Even I hadn’t thought it through when I said it, but as we sat there putting the pieces together, we realized that yeah, between the three of us, we could cover all the bases.  All of them.  Deep feelings, hot sex, sharp dialogue, rich internal life, strong character development, fully researched scenarios, fast plot, great action, all in a well-presented package free of typos, cleanly edited, and sent out into the world with all the right sales and marketing.

Finally Rose spoke.  “This.  Is the greatest idea.  In the history of everything ever.”

“Amen,” Sherry said.

I put my hand out, palm down.  “Shall we seal the pact, sisters?”

Wine glasses went down and arms were outstretched.  The three of us layered our hands, one atop the other.

Sherry gave us our cheer.  “Witches for the win!”

“Whoo!”

 

And that’s how it started.  We were busting to get going, but of course after a few glasses (okay, bottles) of wine, that was not going to happen the same night.

“But,” Rose said enthusiastically, “we can start looking at hot cover models.”

“I’m down with that,” Sherry said.  “We can use Jeremy’s Mac.  But, leave your wine glasses over here, please, ladies, we don’t want any accidents around the technology.”  We teetered over to the sound mixing area, where Sherry fired up a Mac with a 27 inch monitor.

“I want that,” I said enviously.

Rose put an arm around my shoulder.  “Give it a couple months, hon, you’ll have it.  We’ll be rich in no time.”

“Okay,” Sherry said, “you steer, captain.”

Rose took the helm and pulled up Dreamstime.com.  “There are a lot of sites, but most of the photographers post everywhere, so it’s really about personal prefs and pricing.  Mostly about pricing.  So, we search on ‘nude man,’ to start.  Then we can try ‘sexy man,’ ‘naked man,’ ‘hot man’…”

The site brought up a ton of thumbnails for ‘nude man.’  We wolf whistled, and criticized, and even laughed at a few.  (A hot guy in…a gas mask?  Something for everyone, I suppose.)

Then a picture caught my eye, the kind of photo I’d have normally dismissed as corny – I mean, a shirtless guy in a white bed, with a white sheet draped over his privates, and a red rose by his head?  Long dark hair and a five o’clock shadow on his pale, perfect skin?  Oh, come on, how cliché is that?

And, okay, a 27 inch monitor is pretty big, but even so, the thumbnails were still about an inch or two wide.  So then how did his eyes catch me the way they did?  Eyes that were the size onscreen of the head of a pin, if that.  But they did.  They were a blue-green, the color of the sea on a sunny day, warm and kind and full of love, and promise.  Come to me, they instructed me.

“That guy.”  My finger obeyed his summons, reaching out towards the screen.  “Click on that guy.”

Rose obeyed.  “Oh, him.  That’s Paul.  Everyone uses him.  Half the covers on the bestseller list have one of his pics.”

“He’s…” I was at a loss for words.  Me, the writer.  Well, more to the point, “a” word like “gorgeous” wasn’t going to cut it.  I felt as if he was demanding better than that from me.

“Everyone uses that picture?” I said, my disappointment plain.  I wanted to use it!  I wanted to look at him every time I looked at our book.

“No, silly.  He’s got a ton of pictures.  Here, see?” she said, clicking on the link that said “Other stock images with this model.”

“We can use him, too, it’s no crime.”  She flicked back to the main page, before I could stop her.
“We just want to make sure we’re not picking the same image right this minute that someone else on the best seller list has just worked up.  Gotta let ‘em cool a couple months before you reuse ‘em.”

“Oh,” Sherry said, looking at another guy.  “Check him out…”

But I was lost.  Paul.  All I wanted to do was run home and stare at his picture.  Pictures!  I would feast on them.

And so, as I failed to keep up my end of the conversation, and blamed it on the wine and fatigue, the evening closed soon afterwards.  We agreed to meet the next night at Rose’s house to begin synthesizing our work into a single story.

I cabbed it home and immediately fired up my little laptop.  Yeah, time for a bigger monitor.

It wasn’t hard to find him again.  And to find the “other images with this model” link.  And click.  And click.  And blow up my browser window to 200%, so that when I zoomed the photos, his face, then his eyes, filled my screen.

And what surprised me was that there were not only so many images of him, but that he could be so many different men in so many different pictures, different settings – he was the tender lover with the rose, the snarling Viking, the cool guy in a band, the Miami Beach tool, the shifter/werewolf, the business man, the college kid, the gym rat, the outdoorsman, the poet, the soldier…  As I looked at each picture, I was totally convinced that I was looking at the real man, that that was who he really was…until I looked at the next.

And yet, always, he was clearly recognizably himself – Paul.  It was those eyes, reminding you that he was in there, somewhere, behind the image, and you’d never know which one he really was, he was all of them, he was whoever you wanted him to be…

It was past eleven on a Friday night.  I picked up the phone.

“What’s up,” Ryder said.

“Did I wake you?”

“Nope, I’m up, just reading.”

“I am so horny.”

“Oh yeah?  Where you been?”

“With Sherry and Rose.  We’re going to write a romance novel together.”

“And you’re ready for some sweet, savage love?”

“Yeah, that.”

“On my way.”

 

“Wow,” Ryder said.

“Yeah,” I agreed.  We’d always had decent sex.  You know what I mean by decent.  A little foreplay, some nuzzling, a casual pheromone exchange, he’s ready, I’m ready, it’s…relaxing.  Comfy.  He gets off, I get off, we pass out.

But tonight?  Wow pretty much covered it.

“What did they feed you over there?”

“Dirty stories and hot photos of shirtless guys,” I confessed.

“Awesome.  When do you go back?”

I laughed.  “Should we schedule something around that?”

“Well, duh.”

I snuggled into his sweaty chest, a pang of guilt taking its percentage off my happiness.  Ryder could stand to lose a few pounds, I thought, thinking of Paul’s lean, taut torso.  Work out a little more.  I’d…used him.  Taken what Paul’s pictures had inflamed in me and used my fire inspector to douse the flames.

But he didn’t seem too concerned about it, I told myself.  We both got what we wanted out of it, right?

 

Rose’s ‘house’ was a mansion.  I mean, literally, like with a stone wall and a big electric gate and a long driveway that ended in a circle where the valets would no doubt take your car on some elegant evening of swellegance where everyone wore tuxes and ball gowns as a fundraiser for some awful politician.  But tonight it was just Sherry’s old Beetle and my aging Volvo in the driveway.

“You are rich,” I declared when Rose answered the door.

“My husband is rich.  I just live here.”  The undertone of bitterness made me regret my joke.  “But come on in, I bid you welcome to Castle Dracula.”

“It’s a little too nice for that,” Sherry said.  It was definitely also too bright, modern, maybe even a little too ultramodern to be comfortable, what with the white walls and skylights and minimal furnishing in most of the rooms we walked through and past to get to Rose’s office.

Which was almost like a little rebellious outpost, an Austin in the middle of Texas.  The shelves were full of books, mostly business books, some big art books, and a lot of romances as well.  Like, a lot.  Rose had definitely done her homework there.  The desk was as cluttered as the rest of the house was spare, and the walls were covered in original art, mostly paintings.

“These are great,” I said.  They were pictures of porches, or lawns, the backs of houses, laundry drying on a line.  “They’re like Hoppers.”  Like Edward Hopper, the artist knew how to paint light and shadow in a way that made you feel, almost but deliberately not quite, like you were in a photo.  And like Hopper’s paintings, they were clearly painted on the East Coast, with that hard, flat, Atlantic light, mysteriously different from our diffuse West Coast sun.

“Thanks, they’re my mom’s.  As in, she painted them.  So, let’s get to work.”

If I thought Sherry’s monitor was big, well, Rose had a 60 inch on the wall.  “I do a lot of presentations, for the day job.  I have to see what they’ll look like when I project them.   Just kind of a perfectionist that way.”

It was ideal for the three of us, as we were able to watch the monitor with little eye or back strain as I drove the knitting.  It made sense to all of us that I be the editor, being the grammarian.

And we soon discovered we made a great team.  None of us was so wedded to our deathless prose that we couldn’t change, or drop, an idea if the others had a better one.  And so the story took shape.  I have to admit, I lobbied for “David” as the main character’s name.

“I just…god, you know, all those soap opera names.  They’re so ridiculous.  No offense,” I said hastily to the ladies who’d named their versions of the fireman “Heath” and “Zane.”

“None taken,” Rose said briskly.  “But the fact is, that’s what sells.  The ladies like their Skylers and Jordans and Austins and Camerons.  Are you telling me you wouldn’t want to date a guy named Aiden?”

I blushed.  “Well…”

Sherry was onto me, her hippie senses attuned to my discomfort.  “What’s his name?  Your boyfriend, the fire inspector you so briefly mentioned last night?”

I sighed.  “Ryder.  Ryder Storm.”

They looked at me for about one and a half seconds before bursting into hysterics.  “It’s not funny,” I said.  “He’s totally not that guy.”

There was that guilt again.  Why did I have to knock him?  He was a good guy.  He was no model, no romance hero, but…but that was the problem, wasn’t it.  Well, it never had been before.  What we had was good, right?  Yeah.  Was it hot, passionate, intense?  Umm, last night it was.  And the reason for that was…?

“ ‘Ryder looked into her eyes with his smoldering gaze,’” Rose giggled.

“ ‘Smoldering as if the fire he’d just inspected had blown embers into his eyes,’” Sherry went on.

“Fire inspectors don’t inspect fires, silly.”

“Oh, don’t be so literal.  If you’re going to be a romance novelist, hon, you’ve got to roll with it.”  Rose wiped away a tear.  “It’s not like your serious fiction, it’s not about reality.  Nobody’s paying for more reality in their day.  It’s about escape.  Something…different. Better.  Exciting.”

“I get it,” I said suddenly, seeing it clearly.  “We date Tom, we marry Dick, we could have had Harry.  But it’s Shane and Zane and Blaine, the guys we never met, the guys who breezed past us in the hall in high school, the guys our popular sisters dated…”  I sighed.  “Okay,” I conceded.  “But Heath, not Zane.  Zane is too much.”

“Agreed.  Okay, moving on…”

 

I’d never known what it was like to collaborate before, never known how much better your art could be if you let someone in, someone who could fill in the blanks where you were weak.  It was a relief, really, the idea that you didn’t have to be the Great Man who Toils Alone, cranking out Deathless Prose with no assistance other than a bottle of wine (or twelve), a compliant mistress, and the Muses.

Well, I had a Muse.  Paul.  And like any other groupie, I looked him up on the Internet.  It didn’t take long, either.  A search on “Paul romance model” was all it took to find him.  Or at least to find his fan club.  His massive gigantic fan club.

There were more fan pages than I could shake a stick at.  And I had to cackle when I saw his full name – Paul Musegetes.  So he was doing this under a pseudonym too, I thought, just like the people who wrote the books on whose covers he was so frequently featured.  I knew my mythology well, had taken a college class on it.  “Apollon Musegetes” was the form of the god Apollo who lead the Muses, directed their choir, and was the patron god of music and poetry.

He was a muse, no doubt.  But a strange one.  Unlike famous models like Fabio (once upon a time) or Jimmy Thomas, who went to romance novelists’ conventions and had their own websites and beefcake posters and interacted with their fans…Paul was, well, like me.  No marketing, no advertising, no self-promotion.  In fact, his fans were so unlikely to ever see him in person that they called possible sightings “appaulritions” and logged the GPS coordinates like geocachers.

So what did they do without any facts about him?  Well, there was the fanfic.  Oh my god was there ever.  And the thing was, it was all based on these “reliable” reports about who he really was.  He’s really a rich polo player from Argentina, he’s really a goatherd from Greece, a gondolier from Venice, he’s anything in the world other than just some good looking guy.

And what about his photographer?  God, he had a pseudonym too, another phony soap name – Jackson da Vinci.  Give me a break, right?  And he was just as mysteriously unfindable as his model, which made sense to me – if crazy girls were stalking your model, they’d stalk you, too, if you could lead them to him.  And crazy girls were stalking Mr. da Vinci, I knew, having read their dismay that all the hacker skills in the world had failed to triangulate his real location from his website, no “whois” or IP address pingback or any other technothingie clever enough to beat his anonymizers.

But Paul did appear in public, once a year, at the annual Romance Writers Ball.  Like Prince Charming, but really, more like Cinderella, come and gone and not to be found.  All the photos of him that weren’t studio shots were from that event.

But that was six months from now, in late June.  I didn’t think I could stand the wait.  I had to go.  I had to see him with my own eyes.  Touch him, to prove he was real.  To…well, wasn’t that a schoolgirl fantasy, to think he would select me from all the women there, take the rose from between his teeth and put it in my heaving bosom (it would have to heave or the whole scene just wouldn’t work).

Idiot, I cursed myself, pushing away from the computer.  You’re supposed to be the creator of fantasies, not the consumer.  The one who makes other women fall in love with unreal, unattainable men.  I knew from movies that a great drug dealer never touches his product, never falls to the siren song of it.  For me to become obsessed with Paul Musegetes or whoever he was…well, I might as well put my face in a big bowl of coke and start snorting.

All the same.  I was the Photoshop lady (well, I used GIMP, which was free and did the same job) and I was in charge of the cover for our first release, under Rose’s direction, of course – she picked the title, the font, the background colors, but I picked Paul, to no objections from Rose as he was “marketable.” I was the one who put Paul in a fireman’s hat and coat, ludicrously bare-chested beneath that.

Ryder raised an eyebrow at the cover.  “You know he’d die instantly in the fire, right?  With an open coat and no shirt?”

“Where’s your sense of romance?”

“He doesn’t do that in the book, does he?”

“Of course not.  But it’s the idea of it, Rose says, that the hunky fireman would rescue you like that, hug you to his firm bare chest as he dashes out of the burning building with you in his arms.  Even if the book doesn’t deliver that scene, you can still imagine it, add it in yourself.”

“Got it.”

Ryder had been supportive, encouraging, but I could feel it, that faint disappointment – the idea that I, a Serious Novelist, would turn my talent to making Filthy Lucre.  Well, he didn’t have to work in the lipo clinic, did he?  He didn’t have a job at which he dreamed of escape pretty much every day.

Like the day before we hit the “publish” button.  A Thursday, our busiest day – the last day of the week for Dr. Bob.

Mrs. Sheryl Davenport was a regular.  Yeah, I know – a regular at the lipo clinic.  That’s not the way it’s supposed to work.  You’re supposed to get your fat sucked out once, and change your wicked ways.  It’s a second chance, not a third and a fourth.  But Mrs. Davenport liked a glass of wine, or six, and then didn’t cheese and crackers sound lovely?  Maybe with a nice goose liver pate?  They certainly did to her.

I could hear the commotion at the front desk from the back office, hear her cut-glass voice slicing through our poor receptionist.  “No, I need to speak to her now.”

I know who “her” was, it was always me.  I heaved myself back from the desk and steeled myself for combat.

“Hello, Mrs. Davenport, how can I help you?” I said with a smile.  Someone had told me once that if you eat shit with a smile, it doesn’t taste as bad.  Right.

“Twenty dollars for a lousy Percocet?  Seventy five dollars for gauze?  Seriously?”

Okay, not to offend you if you’re rich, but…rich people are cheap.  I guess that’s how they get and stay rich, by arguing over every penny.  By making the argument so exhausting that you just let them win to get a break.  Mrs. Davenport always insisted on an itemized bill, which might have made sense if you were in a hospital with a serious illness, but really?  You’re going to argue over the cost of your third cosmetic procedure this year?

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Davenport, we use industry standard rates for…”

“I know what you use.  You use my wallet like your own personal ATM card.  You people are robbing me blind.”

I saw red.  Really, as in, my vision blurred from the blood rushing to my head.  All I wanted to do was tell this bitch off, tell her how many little children’s eyesight and harelips and lopsided legs could be fixed with the tens of thousands she’d spent this year getting her tummy paved flat.

But I didn’t.  Because I needed the money.  I needed to eat her shit and smile, smile, smile.  And as I did I thought clearly and calmly, there is nothing you can write that will be more embarrassing, more shameful, more ridiculous, than having to sit here and take this from another human being without being able to say one true word.

That was when I knew.  I was going to be serious about this romance thing.  It wasn’t a lark.  We were good and we could be even better.  I would work harder, I would stop resisting the advances of Skyler and Blaze and Trey and Micah as they wormed their way onto the page.  There was a handsome billionaire named Kindle Fyre just waiting to take me away from all this, if only I’d let him shower me with royalties and roll out the red carpet to my private jet.

I would do this and we would make a ton of money and I would sneak into Mrs. Sheryl Davenport’s house at night with a turkey baster and a bucket of lard and I would stick it, pound for pound equivalent to all the fat she’d had drained out of her, right up her ass.

Okay, not really.  But I would tell her to piss off and die, and I would quit this job.

 

“Are you ready?” Rose said.

“Ready,” Sherry said.

“Roger, we are go,” I agreed.

Rose hit the Publish button on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing site.  It was symbolic, really, because there were a ton of other Publish buttons to hit, too, but Amazon was the Big Boy on the block.  “Pamela Clarice” would get all the fame but we would get the fortune, and that was what mattered to me now.

We cheered and toasted the moment with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.  That was when Rose’s husband Jeff peeked his head in.

“Oh, I see you’re here with your little secret society, ha ha,” he smirked.  Yeah, he was that guy, “just kidding” guy, you know him – he says something mean and then says, ha ha, just kidding.  It’s his free pass to be cruel because if he says afterwards that it’s a joke, and your feelings are hurt, well, that’s because you can’t take a joke.  So he gets to belittle you, and bully you, in one sentence.

I could see Rose change – from the crisp, sharp businesswoman I knew her as, to a small, frightened girl.  “We’re just finishing up,” she apologized.

Jeff shrugged.  He was a blandly handsome guy, you know, the TV news anchorman type, boring banker hairdo and dark suit.  He was nearing fifty, and Rose was nearing forty, and I could tell he would be on the lookout for a trophy wife soon enough.  “Whatever.  Call Alexis when you’re done.”  Then he was gone.

“Sorry about that,” Rose apologized.

“Don’t apologize,” Sherry said.  “You didn’t do anything.”

“I know.  I just…ah, crap.”  She smiled.  “Screw him.  Witches for the win, right?”

“Here’s to Heath,” Sherry said, raising her glass, “our shiny new lover.”

“To Heath!” Rose agreed, brightening up.  “Long may he reign the best seller list!”

 

Look for more of Diana’s story…well, when we’re done with Roger and Brian!  Once again, HI BIG PUBLISHING BUY ME NOW LOL!

7 Comments on A Sunday Diversion from my Sister Angelina!

  1. This is really interesting and good. I like Diana already, and I like that I don’t really like Rose. And I’m enjoying the insider peek into self-pubbing (write what you know, right? :)). dreamstime: nice tip 😉

  2. Oh boy. I think that this might be one of the few hetero romance books that make it onto my Kindle! Reads a bit like a roman clef as well, hmm? 🙂 You clearly know the frustrations involved in being a writer, and trying to get yourself noticed among the thousands of choices out there in the publishing world while holding down the evil day job. But you’re no pussy! (Errr… so to speak) You soldier on and we are eternally grateful for it!

    And I happen to love the world of independent and self-publishing! Mainstream publishers are too scared these days to try new things, or too afraid to offend people by offering subjects considered indecent by the vocal minority. I just wish that Amazon would hurry up and pull their head out of their ass- pronto! The primary reason for getting a Kindle was to get access to stories that didn’t have print editions, and they’re fucking it up! AARRRGH!!!

    Ahem. Sorry. Slipped into rant-mode. My bad.

    Anyway! This is a great start and I liked how serendipity (?, right word?) brought these three women together. Life can be like that; lord knows my life has taken those kind of turns before. I will definitely be first in line for my copy. 🙂

    • You are too kind my dear! Yeah this will be a nice break for me after a solid year of gay sexin’! I love selfpub too, but the idea of starting a whole nother website, fb, twitter etc for Angelina makes me long for a good old fashioned tradpub contract for the dear girl…

  3. Loved it. Working my way through your blog. Hope there is more.

    • Thanks, it’s “Brad’s” book now, titled “Curse of the Tenth Muse,” and it’s underway.

      • Sex/gender of the author, now there’s an interesting topic to discuss. I’ll have to finish reading the blog. I got caught up in reading your books. Currently on “A Little Too Broken”

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