It was the sort of party where Miranda Wake knew every guest by face or reputation, but had never spoken to any of them. At least, not in person. Of course, she’d received irate phone calls from several of the chefs present, after one of her less-than-glowing reviews, but that didn’t really count as a formal introduction, she didn’t think. Well, not enough to form the basis for polite cocktail party conversation. Impolite conversation, maybe.
Miranda caught herself smirking, and pulled her mouth back into its customary noncommittal line. It was harder than she expected. She blinked. The room and everyone in it wavered slightly.
"Why won’t all of you no-talent hacks stand still?" she said, a little startled at how loud her own voice seemed in her ears. When had she lost volume control?
Several people turned to stare, and Miranda tilted her chin up, daring them to say anything. She felt brittle and dry, like crumpled-up paper—after the day she’d had, it wouldn’t take much of a spark to make her go up in flames.
Someone jostled her elbow, and Miranda turned with a frown to find her editor, Claire Durand, staring at her. There was an incredulous look on Claire’s normally serene countenance, her perfectly plucked eyebrows arching upward as she took in Miranda’s struggle to keep a straight face.
"Miranda," she hissed, her French-accented voice giving the r in the name extra emphasis. "How many of these apéritifs have you had?"
Miranda leaned in a little and whispered, "In America, we call them ‘cocktails.’ "
Claire pursed her red-lipsticked mouth, and Miranda tried to remember what that was called in France. "A moue?" she said out loud, without meaning to.
The eyebrows snapped down. "Merde," she cursed. "But I watched you! I would swear you had no more than I."
Miranda thought about it. "Yes," she agreed. "But you’re French. You were probably given wine as an infant." Miranda blinked. "I . . . wasn’t."
Looking around wrathfully, Claire said, "Of what are these concoctions made? Is the chef trying to poison us?"
Miranda, who still had her empty glass, took an experimental sniff. "Don’t think so," she said. "Smells like roses. Which are edible. Or, in this case, drinkable. No, that’s wrong. What’s that word?" Why was she having such a hard time with words to night? They were usually her specialty.
Callously ignoring Miranda’s vocabulary difficulties, Claire flagged down one of the circulating waiters. "You. What is in the cocktail, please?"
The young man appeared to shrink under Claire’s stern glare, but stammered, "Rose-petal-infused vodka and fresh Hudson Valley raspberries."
Claire let go of his arm, and the boy wasted no time in making his escape. Miranda watched him go with some disappointment; that rose-vodka-berry thing really had been yummy. She thought she might quite like another one. Third time’s the charm. Or was that fifth?
But all visions of sweetly perfumed liquor left her head when Claire turned the eyebrows on her again. This time they were accompanied by a tight pinch at Miranda’s elbow, as Claire manacled her arm and attempted to sidle them both closer to the wall.
"Ow," said Miranda, allowing herself to be led.
"Thank God for atmospheric restaurant lighting," Claire breathed, smiling graciously at a curious fellow guest. Miranda peered at his face as she was hustled past.
"Was that the critic for the Post?" she asked. Miranda’s volume control was evidently still hit-or-miss, because Claire winced and tightened her grip.
"Ow," Miranda reminded her with greater emphasis. "Randall Collins. Was it? I should say hello. His one review, of that tapas place, was inspired." She paused. "Or do I mean ‘inspirational’? Because it sure inspired me. Before reading that review, I didn’t know you could even print some of the names he called that chef."
"Oui, oui, I’m certain he changed your life, and I, for one, am grateful to him, but you are in no condition to tell him so. If I permit you to speak with him now, tomorrow you would throw yourself from the Brooklyn Bridge, and then what should I do? I would have to find a new restaurant critic with your gift of vitriol. Who else could I find to take on the titans, like Devon Sparks and his new Las Vegas monstrosity? Remember how much fun that was? And think—if you commit career suicide, you’ll never have the chance to write your book and become a world-famous best-selling author."
The remark flicked right over the raw, open wound of that afternoon’s letter from Empire Publishing. "It doesn’t matter," Miranda wailed. "No publisher is ever going to buy my book."
"That’s simply not true," Claire stated, as if being decisive about it would make it so. She succeeded in manhandling Miranda to a standstill in a shadowed alcove.
Miranda felt a wall at her back and leaned gratefully. "The room is spinny," she told Claire.
The older woman laughed and said, "I’m sure it is. Whatever has gotten into you to night?"
"I got another rejection on the book," she confessed.
"Oh! You poor dear." Claire was instantly sympathetic, and Miranda smiled at her. "What was the reason this time?"
The highlights from the letter were emblazoned on her brain. "They thought my publicity platform wasn’t strong enough for a nonfiction proposal, and the part about the restaurant culture didn’t feel believable. It just wasn’t ‘authentic.’ " She made sarcastic air quotes with her fingers, still burning with frustration over that particular comment. "I mean, I know I haven’t worked in a restaurant, but I reviewed them for three years, freelance, before you hired me. And Jess has been waiting tables since high school!"
"How is your adorable brother, by the way?"
Claire was awfully quick to leap onto a new subject, Miranda noticed. It was possible she was getting tired of commiserating over the stack of rejection letters Miranda had piled up as she shopped her idea for a book examining the rise of celebrity chefs and modern restaurant culture.
Unfortunately, the topic of Jess was a minefield all on its own.
"Funny you should ask," Miranda said. "Not funny, ha-ha, though. More like funny, oh, crap."
"What has happened at that godforsaken college of his?"
Claire had sniffed disdainfully when Miranda was proud that her younger brother had been accepted to Brandewine University in Brandewine, Indiana, on a full visual communications scholarship. Claire distrusted pretty much all the states in the middle and had a hard time believing anything good came from them.
The thought of that scholarship was enough to bring some of the room back into unpleasant focus. Where was a waiter bearing rose-vodka-berry things when you needed him?
"Jess is home," she said.
Claire brightened. "But that is marvelous! Now you’ll have all summer together."
"It is," Miranda said. "But it’s not just for summer break—he quit Brandewine. Showed up at my apartment this afternoon, about ten minutes after I opened that rejection letter from Empire Publishing. Jess brought three duffel bags, his camera, and not a single word of explanation."
"And you took him in without a murmur."
It wasn’t a question, but Miranda nodded. "He’s my brother. Even if I’ve got no idea what’s going on with him, what would induce him to leave a full-ride scholarship—even if he refuses to tell me what happened? It doesn’t matter. I could never turn him away. But he’s damn well going back to Brandewine next semester, or I will know the reason why!"
No matter what was going on with Jess, Miranda would take care of him. That was her job. It had been her job since their parents died in a car crash when she was eighteen, leaving a heartbroken ten-year-old son and a daughter who’d had to grow up overnight.
"I guess we’re not as close as we used to be," she said, and the words tasted like ash in her mouth. Like failure.
Claire shrugged with Gallic fatalism. "But that is normal, no? How many younger brothers tell their sisters, especially a sister who has been both mother and father to them, what is happening in their lives?"
"Well, it’s not normal for us," Miranda insisted. "At least, I don’t want it to be. He’s all I have."
Claire frowned at her. "Nonsense. You are becoming maudlin. Stay here." Muttering something about Americans being unable to hold their liquor, she left Miranda leaning against the wall.
Miranda rolled her head to the left, scratching her cheek against the chic exposed brick. The rough edges caught at her hair, pulling like a hundred tiny fingers. She rolled her head to the right, then forward, just to feel it again.
Once she’d tilted her head down it was sort of hard to lift it up. She contemplated her sensible, all-purpose black cocktail dress. The fruits of her first week’s labors at Dé-licieux magazine. It had turned out to be a good investment; the Ralph Lauren design was a classic, still in style, even a year later. The neckline plunged enough to give her cleavage, but not so much that men spoke to her chest rather than to her face. And the clingy material outlined the waist she worked so hard to keep trim while trying all those innovative desserts for her monthly column.
The shoes, though. Miranda gazed at her crimson pumps, her spirits lifting slightly.
The dress was nice. Serviceable. The shoes were a decadent indulgence. Red satin with black lace overlay, peep toe and wickedly sharp heel. Every time she put them on, she felt just the teeniest bit vampy.
She wouldn’t normally wear them to a professional function, but after the soul-crushing news that yet another publishing house wouldn’t be helping her break into the prestigious, lucrative world of book publishing, and Jess’s dramatic arrival, she’d needed something. The shoes had beckoned her from the back of the closet, whispering about boosting confidence and the lift a woman gets only from a truly stunning pair of heels, and that was it. She’d kicked off the plain black pumps and slipped on the red satin, and left the apartment before she had a chance to reconsider.
God, she so didn’t want to be here right now. Half her brain was still at home in her cozy apartment, staring blankly at her brother’s tight mouth and exhausted eyes, wondering exactly when she stopped understanding the one person she always thought she knew better than anyone else. But no. The rest of her brain was soaking in vodka at this meaningless party for a restaurant that wasn’t even open yet, but would probably close in a year, because way more than half of them did, and what was the point of it all anyway?
"What are you scowling at?" Claire demanded, startling Miranda out of her reverie. "Never mind," Claire continued, before Miranda could open her mouth. "Drink this."
She was holding two delicate glasses full of darkly pink liquid. Miranda licked her lips, reaching for one. "Really? I thought you wouldn’t let me have more." She drank eagerly, making a disappointed noise when she reached the bottom of the glass. The alcohol hit her system like a kick to the head, and the room’s colors suddenly pulsed a shade brighter, going in and out of focus.
"When one has reached the sentimental stage, the only way out is more alcohol. I need you up, not drooping. The show is about to start."
So saying, she shoved the second drink into Miranda’s hand and pulled her back into the throng of mingling guests.
But even with the renewed buzz of icy sweet vodka burning in her stomach, all Miranda could really hope was that the party would be over soon. Red shoes or not, she was in a dangerously bad mood.
Excerpted from Can’t Stand the Heat by Louisa Edwards.
Copyright 2009 by Louisa Edwards.
Published in September 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.