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Mommies Behaving Badly
By Roz Bailey
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Roz Bailey
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAlmost Famous
So far it had been an odd business lunch, as difficult to maneuver as my favorite Manolo Blahnik heels, the slender ones with the delicate ivy leaves trailing up the ankle straps-shoes of a goddess-which, I'd discovered this morning as I tried to put them on, now were adorned with miniature pine cones that had been glued to the toe strap. Undoubtedly the work of six-year-old Scout, who'd face her mother's wrath just as soon as I got her home from school today.
Forced to adopt Shoe Plan B, I dangled my boring black pumps under the table in one of New York's four-star dining rooms, relieved to have my friend and agent Morgan O'Malley beside me to interpret the musings of the graying stuffed shirt who'd been beating around the bush throughout the meal. Morgan had warned me that Oscar Stollen, president of the most powerful romance publishing company in the world, liked to throw his weight around. I just hoped he was prepared to position that bulk beneath his cavernous suit into a book deal and offer me a big, fat brand-new contract.
"Bring us a round of caramel machiatos," Oscar ordered the white-jacketed waiter, then sat back in his thoughtful posture, index finger tosquare chin.
I suspected that his insistence on ordering for everyone at the table was just the beginning of Oscar's power trip. Oscar had been ordering for us since the waiter snapped a white linen napkin into my lap. I couldn't remember what was in a caramel machiato, but then I'd used up my quota of questions during the lunch, daring to ask what was in the foie gras, what were pancetta, carbonara, gruyére-and what, remind me, was the difference between radicchio and arugula? Cocking an eyebrow at Morgan, I relaxed and settled in for a caramel mucky-mucky. Oscar was a windbag, but I was well aware of the silver lining here: I was being served free food, and so far no one had spilled a drink, asked me to cut their meat or initiated a snarling slap fight. Having been a single parent this last week with my husband out of town, I didn't mind sucking up to Oscar in return for some culinary pampering.
Morgan's mouth curled in half a frown, her message: "I'm behaving for the moment, waiting on his offer."
His offer. If only it was that simple.
If we'd been able to lunch with my editor, Lindsay McCorkle, we would have covered business in the first ten minutes, tasted each other's entrees and shared child-rearing updates. By this part of the lunch we'd have our shoes off under the table as we doubled over laughing about office politics and anecdotes. Unfortunately, Lindsay had told Morgan that "the big guy" wanted to handle this negotiation himself, much to Morgan's dismay.
"Oscar's such an odd duck," she'd told me over the phone. "It's just going to cast a pall over what could be a fun occasion."
We'd already suffered through Oscar's high ick-factor menu of potted suckling pig, sea urchin that reminded me of my ninth-grade biology dissection and foie gras that brought to mind my twenty-month-old's favorite picture book about a fluffy duckling looking for its mama. ("Mama! Mama!" I would quack, much to his wide-eyed delight. "Are you my Mama?") Dylan would be crushed to discover his mommy had allowed bad men to keep the fluffy duckling in captivity, then kill it so that she could consume its fatty liver. But here I was, trying to make a book deal, not wanting to offend the lunch host.
In for a penny, in for a pound ... or a few pounds, actually. So much for my diet. I could forget about the skinny, sexy black sparkle dress I wanted to wear to my husband's company Christmas party this month. But Oscar was insistent, and I didn't want to say no to the man who was going to offer me the big bucks. I fantasized at how high this next advance might be. Six figures? S-s-s-seven? That was crazy talk, an unheard-of advance for a series romance writer like me.
But a girl could dream.
For the past decade I had written approximately three romance novels each year, earning a reasonable income that barely faltered with the birth of my three children. My friends couldn't imagine how I did it. My mother worried that I'd sold my intellectual soul for steady money. My neighbors didn't have a clue that I was actually working holed up in the basement room in our bedroom community of Bayside, Queens. And the other moms at school assumed that I couldn't be doing anything, since I appeared at dismissal each afternoon in jeans and a down jacket, instead of pulling up outside the school door in a huge Suburban wearing a Dior suit and cashmere coat with a cell phone pressed to my ear. They tried to rope me into the PTA, the first-grade show, volunteer playground duty and box-top snipping, but I fended them off, content to hole up with a cup of herbal tea at my computer and click out my five to seven pages a day.
I enjoyed weaving the stories of my near-perfect people, teasing my characters through their crises and wrapping things up with a neat, heartwarming Ruby Dixon ending. But lately, I'd started craving more of a creative stretch, wishing for a chance to write something that actually made a statement. What that statement would be, I wasn't quite sure, but one night in a fit of inspiration I launched into the proposal for what my agent called "a big book," a longer, more candid story that pressed beyond the pat romance formula. My new story was about a hot-shot business executive, Janna Pearson, who suddenly gets a flash of the ruthless bitch she's become. She has a breakdown, which zeros out her career but leads her to rediscover the things that stir her soul ... like making chocolates. Add in a dozen of the juiciest sex scenes I'd ever written, scenes that would make my husband wince, and there you have it. Entitled Chocolate in the Morning, the proposal was now being shopped around to various publishers, including Hearts and Flowers Romance, where my editor Lindsay told me she'd read it but had been pressed to keep mum on her response so that Oscar could "handle it."
Funny, but Oscar hadn't mentioned Chocolate in the Morning yet.
As Oscar and Morgan chatted about the firing of some publishing giant I didn't know, I straightened the napkin on my lap and wondered if I could get away with wearing these, my favorite black pants, to Jack's event. Since I'd turned thirty, I'd decided that black was the new everything. It hid a wealth of stains and it looked pretty good against my gold-brown hair that was now highlighted to cover the gray sprouting around my part. Black ruled, and these pants were the king. The woven black knit was wrinkle-proof and so comfortable and slimming, and the beauty of black pants was that you could dress them up or down. I plucked at a dark thread on the outer seam of my thigh and felt a tickle as the seam gave way slightly.
A hole. I'd just picked my favorite black pants open, revealing pasty thigh underneath.
Fortunately, neither Oscar nor Morgan seemed to notice, however I would need to devise a tactful means of escape once lunch was over. Perhaps I could keep my purse pressed to my thigh as I walked, like a vapid handbag model. Or maybe it would look more natural to throw myself into the arms of one of the smarmy faux-French waiters and ask him to deliver me to the cloak room, s'il vous plait? After all, I was a romance writer; I might as well live up to that slinky satin reputation.
With my palm pressed over the tear near my thigh, I suddenly woke up to the conversation as Morgan made her move.
"Shall we get down to business?" she asked, her almond-shaped, unpolished fingernails gripping the table inches away from the untouched coffee drink placed before her. Morgan is a straight-up java girl, which she would have told Oscar had he bothered to ask before he ordered the cups placed before us, their mounded whipped cream drizzled with caramel sauce. I felt glad that my agent would be negotiating without whipped cream on her upper lip. I, however, wouldn't mind a dive into decadent dairy splendor.
"It's time to negotiate Ruby's new contract," Morgan said, rubbing her hands together like a gleeful miser. "And I'm so glad you've stepped in, since you've got the authority to toss us the big bucks. What say you, Oscar?"
"We're very happy with the way Ruby's books have been performing for Hearts and Flowers," he conceded.
Morgan nodded profusely. "Yes, yes, yes. She does very well for you." I always got a charge out of the way Morgan swung a deal, rubbing her hands together and repeating words for emphasis, fast as a rapid-fire machine gun. "Looking over her last royalty statements, I'd say that upping her advance by ten thousand is a no-brainer. You could even double it and probably still have the books earn out. No problem. Not a problem at all."
I tried to suppress a grin as my brain made quick calculations. Although I never excelled in math, it was clear that Morgan was pushing for me to get thirty thousand dollars a book. At three books a year, that would be ninety grand, but what if I wrote faster, signed up to write four a year?
Despite Oscar's dull presence and his sweaty upper lip, I was beginning to feel all hearts and flowers for Hearts and Flowers, Inc.
"Thirty is doable," Oscar said tentatively.
Thirty. My heart be still. I was tempted to jump up on the table and perform a victory dance, but I didn't want to spill our caramel coffees.
Oscar paused a moment to drain the white china cup, replace it on the saucer and push it away. "But then there's the issue of the new manuscript. What's it called? Cocoa for Breakfast?"
"Chocolate in the Morning," I supplied, my pulse quickening at the thought of even more money and a shot at something I could sink my teeth into.
"The chocolate book. Thank you." Oscar nodded. "I think you know the policy of Hearts and Flowers when it comes to sharing our authors with other publishers. We don't like it. Our feeling is, we've put money, promotion, support behind your books and your name, and it's not fair to allow a competitor to cash in on the Ruby Dixon name, a franchise in which we've invested so heavily."
Morgan was nodding rapidly. "Got it. So we'll let you have Chocolate." Her fingertips slipped away from the linen edge of the table as she sat back and grinned. "For a big, fat advance, of course. Lindsay told me she loved it."
Oscar pressed his lips together and blew his cheeks full of air. Unless he was auditioning to be the Stay-Puft Marshmallow spokesman, the expression didn't strike me as a good sign. "I hear that it's quite the read," he said, "but unfortunately, not for us."
My heart stopped beating.
Had there been an ambulance available, I believe the paramedic would have pronounced me clinically dead-no heartbeat, no pulse, no breath. Just stunned and blue-lipped.
Fortunately Morgan jolted me back to life with her telltale candor. "You've got to be kidding me," my agent said with her melodic New York brassiness. "Haven't you heard the buzz about Chocolate? That manuscript has been generating more chatter than The Da Vinci Code." A stretch, I know, but you gotta love Morgan for defending me.
"Popularity with editors is nice, but it doesn't guarantee a bestseller," he argued, "and this chocolate story doesn't fit into our publishing program. It doesn't speak to our market."
"Okay," Morgan said. "If you're sure you don't want to publish it, we'll take it elsewhere. Ellen Engle at Mission Books is in love with it, and Simon and-"
"It's not that simple," Oscar interrupted. "We don't want Chocolate to be published. Not by us or any of our competitors."
One of Morgan's brows arched as she murmured a restrained: "Remember the Stones's song, Oscar? You can't always get what you want."
"I never liked that song." He leaned over the table for emphasis. "And I know how to get what I want, Ms. O'Malley. When people don't cooperate, I fire them."
Morgan shot me a cross look. "Aren't we lucky that we don't work for Oscar?"
I shrugged, in a near panic, wanting to remind her that, while I might not be on the full-time payroll, Hearts and Flowers was my bread and butter. They paid for my life: everything from lattes to my son's Pull-Ups, to my daughters' juice boxes to my car and its ridiculously high-priced New York insurance. I needed them.
Morgan leaned over the table, as if ready to share a secret with Oscar. "This is Ruby Dixon we're talking about." Morgan pressed her finger onto the white linen tablecloth, jabbing the point home. "A strong track record, a broad fan base. She's never missed a deadline and we know she outsells every other romance published in her month."
"We're delighted to have Ruby Dixon on our list. We'd like to keep her. Writing short romances."
"She needs to grow," Morgan said. "Show us that you want to grow with her."
"Financial growth is a very good thing," Oscar said, "but Hearts and Flowers has a very specific market."
Morgan was shaking her head, frowning in dismay. "I think you're making a mistake here-"
"We know our readers; we can't take the chance of putting them off with this chocolate book and-"
"So Chocolate is off the table," Morgan said.
My eyes did laterals as they kept interrupting each other. This was juicier than I'd expected. Hard to believe it was all over me.
"Let's focus on the other deal," Morgan said.
"You seem to be missing the point," Oscar said, drawing himself back so that he could fold his hands in a little pile on the table. His fingers were small and pudgy. Putty fingers. "Unless you take Chocolate off the market, there is no other deal."
"What?" Morgan's voice snapped. "That's insanity!"
"It's done all the time," he said. "If you want to continue publishing with Hearts and Flowers, you must give us an exclusive on the Ruby Dixon name."
"You can't own her," Morgan said. "It's her real name!"
"It is," I added, as if this needed verification.
"We don't buy the person," Oscar said in a deadly low rasp reminiscent of a serial killer in a film, "only the name."
"Not this name," Morgan hissed. I saw my short, sweet writing career flash before my eyes as she tossed her napkin onto the table and stood up. "This writer is not for sale."
Oscar's body was stiff as a statue except for his eyes, brown shiny marbles that followed Morgan as she rose from the table. The man was cold, like one of those frosty December mornings that stings the lungs.
"Ruby ..." She turned to me, her dark eyes earnest. "I can't in good conscience advise you to accept this deal with the Devil, not just for the big bucks."
In a flash I was beside her with less aplomb, my napkin tumbling onto the top of my sensible black pumps, my favorite black pants gaping open to reveal a silver dollar of pasty thigh. Inspired by Morgan's line "This writer is not for sale!" I wanted to toss off my own powerful protest, something with the passion of "Make Love, Not War" or "We Shall Overcome!" Unfortunately, the best I could do was, "I'm outta here." I picked up the fallen napkin, snatched the torn seams of my pants together and started to exit behind Morgan.
Halfway across the dining room, I paused and turned back, noticing Oscar's stone figure slumped in the chair. "But thank you for the lunch," I called cheerfully.
My career might be over, my livelihood dashed, but really, is that any excuse for bad manners?
Excerpted from Mommies Behaving Badly by Roz Bailey Copyright © 2007 by Roz Bailey. Excerpted by permission.
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