Authors: Merry Farmer
Diane continued her call. She mouthed the word ‘sorry,’ then mimed talking with one hand and rolled her eyes. Jo’s phone buzzed.
Sorry to hear that. I’m now reading
My Lady’s Dark Fantasy.”
Jo’s lips twitched into a wry grin. He would pick the one novel she’d written with a brooding and ambiguous anti-hero.
Jo quickly typed. “
I think you’ll like that one
“Thanks, Maury. Bye.” Diane put her phone down. “Sorry.” Jo slipped her phone back into her bag. Diane grinned. “Was that your new Mr. Right?”
“He’s just downloaded one of my novels,” she replied with an arch of her eyebrow.
“Well that’s one book closer to having a bestseller.”
Rather than be bolstered by Diane’s comment, Jo slumped in her chair. “Frost Square can’t change the amount of my advance for a book like that, can they?”
“Actually, they can.” Diane winced. “The book isn’t under contract, it’s only optioned. That means they have the right to negotiate whatever terms they want for it.”
“But I can’t afford ten thousand. I know that sounds ridiculous, and I know there will be royalties at some point—well, I can hope, at least—but the estate needs money now.” Her phone buzzed as she finished. That, combined with the situation in front of her, left her breathless.
Diane shifted forward. “How bad is the situation with the house? I mean, it’s not about to be foreclosed or anything, is it?”
“No.” Jo fretted. “But I’m only a year or so away from facing that. Nick contributes what he can, but his work is spotty at best. The house needs some serious repairs, and after those two trees fell last month….” She sighed. “I was really counting on that advance.”
“What about the rest of your family? Can any of them help out? Even temporarily?”
Jo chewed her lip. “We’ve got some cousins, but they’ve all got normal jobs. None of us is wealthy anymore. We might be able to buy one year, but that’s it. I’m the only one with the tools to make more than middle class wages and to carry the family legacy on.”
Diane’s sympathetic grimace floated into a stark look of determination. “Okay, this is what I think we should do.” Jo’s eyebrows shot up hopefully. “I think we need to try something else entirely. Historicals aren’t selling. Contemporary S.E.A.L.s are.”
“No. I can’t write military heroes. I know nothing about the military.”
Diane nodded and spread her hands. “Fair enough. How about cowboys? Or billionaires. You could do those.”
Jo winced. Arguably, she’d just
one of those, regardless of what Ben said about renting his lavish apartment.
“I guess I can give it a try.”
“Good. Scrap the historicals and write something fresh, snappy.”
“But I love writing historicals.”
Diane waved the statement away as if it were a fly. “I’ve been meaning to tell you to ditch them for ages. Contemporaries are where it’s at. I have faith in you. You’re a damn good writer, Jo. You have an audience, and if Frost Square can’t appreciate that then screw them, we’ll self-publish.”
“Self-publish?” Jo felt a zip of hope twined with dread.
“Yes. Everybody knows that traditionally published authors who switch over to self-publishing make more money than anyone else.”
“They also take on more risk,” Jo reminded her.
“Risk is the stuff of life.”
Jo chewed her lip, unconvinced. She knew a dozen authors who’d taken their careers into their own hands, but she wasn’t sure she had it in her to be one of them. Not when her family’s home was in danger of going to the bank. The pressure she felt thinking about making that big of a change in her life made her hands and feet numb.
This from the woman who accepted a stranger’s offer of mega-sex. Way to be a bundle of contradictions
But there was something different about Ben’s offer and Diane’s dictate.
“I can see you’re concerned,” Diane spoke into her worries. “But trust me. If you don’t change, then you will fail. Do you want to get nothing but ten thousand dollar advances for the rest of your life, or do you want to take the bull by the horns and shoot for the moon?”
Well, with an argument like that…. Jo straightened, rolling her shoulders to ease the tension that had come to her neck. She had a responsibility to uphold, a legacy to live up to. “I guess I have no choice but to give it a try.”
“No, you don’t.”
Diane’s words were like a silk rope being pulled tight around her throat. Great, now she was getting BDSM imagery.
Oblivious to Jo’s mood, Diane stood with a dentist-white smile. “Let’s go get brunch and you can tell me all about this man you picked up yesterday.”
Jo laughed as she stood. “I would use that to write a story, only I have no idea how it ends.”
As Diane walked around her desk and fetched a raincoat from her closet, Jo checked her phone.
If your writing is anything like your love-making, I’m sure it will be the best book I’ve ever read
The rush of emotion that hit her as she read Ben’s words came dangerously close to bringing tears to her eyes. She was sure he was being flippant. They’d spent all night bantering, tongues engaged in verbal one-upmanship along with kisses. His comment couldn’t be taken at face value. It didn’t matter. He believed in her. Somebody believed in her. Even if he was all but a figment of her imagination.
You have no idea how badly I needed to hear that right now
,” she texted back in a fit of pathos.
“Ready?” Diane led her out of the office.
“Let’s go.” She gave her phone one last longing look before slipping it into her bag and hoisting her bag over her shoulder.
“So. This man,” Diane prompted as they headed down the hall.
“It all started because I wanted a place to work for the afternoon.” Jo went on to tell the story.
Her phone buzzed before they made it to the elevator, before she could get past the part where the young barista revealed that she’d sat at Ben’s personal table. Her thoughts scattered.
“Boy, you must like him,” Diane called her out when she fumbled her last sentence. They stepped into the elevator and headed down.
“I do,” Jo confessed. “What’s not to like? He’s gorgeous and smart.”
And really, really good in bed
“Good for you. So are you going to see him again?”
Jo shrugged. “I don’t know. I would have said no way, but he keeps texting me.”
She continued with the story—fighting to stop herself from sounding like a middle school girl with a crush—as they left the building and charged through the rain. Her mind refused to focus until they had walked down the block and were seated at the quaint bistro Diane loved so much. As the waiter fetched their coffee, Jo finally had a chance to check Ben’s message.
That doesn’t sound good. Want to stop by before you head home
Her heart fluttered down to her toes. The vivid memory of the way he’d touched and kissed her had her blushing hard in the middle of the crowded bistro. Diane arched an eyebrow at her.
I absolutely want to come back
,” she typed, “
but I have to get home. This wasn’t supposed to be an overnight trip
“I would give anything to know what the two of you are talking about,” Diane grinned.
Jo blushed even deeper and set her phone on the table. “Well, at the rate I’m going, I’ll need to use this text conversation as fodder for the amazing book I’m writing to save my career.”
“Please do. I’m dying to know what has you beet red right now.”
The phone buzzed. Jo peeked at it.
Give me a call later if you need to. In the meantime, I’ve got a book to read
She smiled quickly typed, “
,” before setting her phone on the table.
To Diane, she said, “Have you ever met someone and clicked with them from the second you started talking?”
For all her fifty plus years, Diane Glick sighed at the idea and looked like a teenager. “No, but I’ve always wished I’d meet someone like that. Things definitely weren’t like that with my ex-husband!”
Jo laughed. “It was like that with Ben.”
Diane blinked. “Ben? Wait. Theater director Ben?” Jo nodded. Diane’s smile vanished into a stark frown. “He’s not Benjamin Paul, is he?”
Piercing anxiety stuck in Jo’s chest and throat. “Yes, he is. You’ve heard of him?”
“Honey.” Diane reached across the table and laid a hand on Jo’s. “Benjamin Paul has been the talk of the town since those awards were handed out, and not in the good way.”
“Why? What’d he do?” Jo’s stomach twisted with disappointment.
Diane pulled back and sipped her coffee. The hesitation made Jo even more nervous. “He won the award for best director, but apparently he shouldn’t have. That award should have gone to someone else.”
“I know.” Jo shrugged. “I read an article about it when I was in his bathroom.”
Diane continued to look wary. “Did that article mention anything about him winning the award because he was sleeping with half of the award’s voting committee?”
Cold shock dropped straight into Jo’s stomach. “No, no it didn’t.”
Her skin prickled. The same skin that he had touched and kissed for hours. No wonder he knew exactly how to send her to heaven and back. But it had felt so good. He had seemed so genuinely interested in her.
She had asked him if anyone had ever told him he was good in bed, and he’d answered yes.
“I’m sorry, honey, I shouldn’t have said anything.” Diane must have seen her alarm. “And it’s only a rumor. You know how things go in this town. People get bitter and catty when anyone does well.”
“Tell me about it.” It was a poor recovery attempt.
“But hey, you’re in a better position than anyone to find out if it’s true or a big, fat, vicious lie. He’s still texting you, right?”
“He’s reading my book right now,” she reasoned aloud. “But I said I’d call him later.”
“Well, there you go.” Diane nodded. “In spite of all the rules of dating and social etiquette, he texted you right away and wants you to call later. Not exactly the behavior of a serial womanizer.”
“True.” Jo took a sip of her coffee. It wasn’t half as good as the cup Ben had made her. He’d seemed so genuine over breakfast, but for all she knew he could have picked up women in coffee shops all the time. He’d propositioned her.
She’d been had.
In every possible way. And she was still sore to prove it.
It had all felt so right, seemed so genuine. Why would he be texting her now if she was another notch on his bedpost? Well, she’d thought all along that he was like a hero in a romance novel. He was every scandalous rake she’d ever written about. It wasn’t so sexy when a guy turned out to be a rogue in real life.
“Jo.” Diane interrupted her thoughts. Jo blinked to focus on her. “Stop thinking about it. I’m sure things are fine. Gossip is gossip, not gospel. Think about something else. What do you want to order?”
Jo picked up her menu with a sigh. Fat chance she would be able to think about anything else.
She enjoyed her brunch on the most superficial of levels. She chatted with Diane about business and the unfortunate Hannah and her supposed propensity for getting things wrong. Diane even walked her to the nearest subway station after the meal and Jo managed to smile and laugh along the way.
“You focus on writing something new and splashy for me,” Diane said as Jo’s train rolled in. “Get out of your rut and I’ll make you a star.”
It came out sounding like an ultimatum. Jo nodded, her throat too tight with panic to form words. The pressure was on, and how.
She slipped back into quiet melancholy once she was on the subway heading north. It was easy to be melancholy on the subway. It was even easier to writhe with disappointment on finding out your Prince Charming was a man-whore. But he had seemed interested in her. He asked if she wanted to stop by his place to tell him about her bad day. What was going on?
She’d parked her car at the last stop on the line, and was glad it was still there a day later. The whole trip had turned into so much more than she had bargained for in every way, but climbing into her car and turning the ignition reminded her that she was, in essence, back where she’d started. With a six hour drive in front of her, she still didn’t have enough money to pay property taxes.
She’d been driving up the Merritt Parkway for half an hour when her phone rang. She eyed it sideways. She had never been one to talk on the phone while driving, but Ben’s name flashed up on the caller ID. Her heart lurched. Traffic was smooth, so she picked up the phone.
“I never thought I’d say this,” Ben’s voice vibrated through her, “but this is a really intriguing book.”
Hearing him say that—hearing him at all—made her smile. Their connection was real, dammit, and no vicious gossip could change that. “I’m glad you like it.”
“I really do,” he went on. “It was engaging and dramatic and emotional.”
Jo couldn’t help but laugh. “I wouldn’t have thought those were traits that would endear it to a man.”
“Male, female, it doesn’t matter. Everyone wants a story with a strong impact and this story has that.” There was something thrilling and serious about his words, something that went beyond the flirty Benjamin Paul she’d spend the day and night with.
“Well, thank you,” she said. “Now let’s hope that I can do that all again.”
“I have full confidence in your abilities after reading this.”
His compliment sat heavily on her chest. It was wonderful to hear, but daunting at the same time. So much was riding on her ability to churn out another great book, and probably another and another after that. She could feel the pressure closing in on her already.
“Are you there?”
“Yeah, sorry,” she answered. “I got a little distracted is all.”
There was a short pause from his end. “Is everything all right? You said earlier that your meeting wasn’t going well.”
Jo hesitated, took a breath. Did she really want to tell all of her problems to a man she’d spent an amazing night with, but who may or may not be playing her like a Shakespearian tragedy?
Yes. Yes she did.
“My publisher has cut the amount of advance money for my next book,” she spilled. “It won’t be enough to pay the taxes and repair costs on my family house.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” he answered. “What are you planning to do?”
“Well.” She took a deep breath and switched lanes to join the slower traffic. “My agent, Diane, wants me to try writing something different. She wants me to write a contemporary romance, something that’s selling more these days. She says I should self-publish.”
“Are you going to do it?”
“I don’t see that I have much choice.” She would try not to feel bitter, really she would. “I’m sure I can come up with something, but it’s a big change.”
She could hear his smile as he let out a breath. “Change can be good. I’m sure you’ll ace this.”
“Thanks for your vote of confidence. It means a lot to me.”
Ben couldn’t be playing her. He never would have called her if he was. He never would have texted her. She had to be more than sex to him, more than a way to kill time on a dreary afternoon. And night. And morning. He’d cancelled a meeting for her. There had to be more to what happened between them than nookie.
“Jo? You still there?” His voice held all the uncertainty that she felt.
“Sorry, I’m disappointed right now. Not to mention driving.”
“I probably shouldn’t be enabling that.”
Dammit, but she could see the crinkle around his eyes as he spoke, could practically feel his hands groping as he flirted. It had all been so wonderful, insane though it was. There was no possible way she could be falling for a man-whore.
“Yeah, probably,” she admitted after too long of a pause.
“I’ll let you go then.” And just like that, he was as normal and warm as a friend she’d had for ages. “Call me if you want to talk.”
“You do the same,” she said before she could stop herself. “You’ve got your meeting soon, right?”
Jo grinned, tempted to laugh out loud.
got to go.”
“Go, go,” she encouraged him.
“Drive safe,” he charged her, then ended the call.
A hard lump caught in Jo’s throat as she lowered her phone, checked the screen, then put it in the cup-holder beside her. As if she needed the problem of a hardcore crush right now, while being squashed between the house and her career. Ben lived in New York City, for gosh sakes.
When he wasn’t filming twenty minutes away from her house.
Crap. She needed to clear her mind and come up with a stellar idea for a new book.
Instead, she was reasonably certain she’d spend the next six hours reliving the taste of Ben’s skin, the groan deep in his throat when he came, and the excitement of who she’d been in his arms.
Ben fought the growing twist of panic in his gut as he charged down Eighth Avenue toward Café Lunch.
Don’t go blowing things out of proportion
, he steadied himself.
Most threats are hollow. The twins need a show to make money just as much as you need money to make a show
Nothing. The words did nothing to counteract the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. At least the rain had stopped, though now that the temperature was dropping, patches of black ice were forming left and right. Black ice. Nasty stuff that you didn’t see coming which would slap you flat on your ass before you could blink. Kind of like life. At least in Maine, when it snowed, you knew it.
He blinked as he reached the brightly decorated windows of Café Lunch—lurid flowers and bright, painted sun in utter denial of the season. Where had the thought of Maine come from?
That one was no mystery. Jo.
He grabbed the door handle and swung it open, rushing into the cozy warmth of Jett and Ashton’s favorite, kitschy, little sandwich shop. The twins glanced up at him from their special table under a painted mural of various well-known—and very naked—Greek statues frolicking in an imaginary field of flowers and butterflies that could have been painted by a first-grader. They raised their hands in twin waves, but their smiles were as fake as their tans. He doubted even Jo would believe—
Nope. Time to drive that distraction from his mind. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong woman. Wrong him.