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"Turnabout is fair play, Falco, or hadn't you heard? Now where are the bloody plans?"
Dressed in dominatrix black leather down to her spiked heels, Angelina trained the subcompact Beretta on the silver-haired man lying in the center of the mussed bed. Red silk scarves lashed his wrists to the bedposts, and sweat from the long, rough ride she'd just given him rolled down his taut neck and leanly muscled torso.
The year before, the double agent had seduced her and then stolen the missile plans from her flat while she lay wrapped in silken sheets and the afterglow of his expert lovemaking. To add insult to injury, he had then turned over the plans to a twenty-two-year-old blonde for a ridiculously small sum. Rumor had it the plans were once again for sale on the black marketand that Falco knew exactly who the latest purchaser was.
Falco's deep-set dark eyes met hers from across the room. "Angelina, love, you wouldn't shoot me, not after that incredible shag we just shared. Now be a good girl and let me loose."
His cocky self-assurance made her palms itch to slap his handsome lying faceagain. "Don't flatter yourself. I would have shot you when I first spotted you at the embassy ball earlier tonight, only my gown was vintage Valentino and I hated to ruin it with the splatter."
"The book tanked, Becky. I'm sorry."
Pat punctuated her pronouncement by upending the bottle of ketchup over her burger. The bright red glob landing atop the plump, midrare patty might as well have been Becky's career lifeblood.
Eyes watering, Becky took a moment to recover from the sip of champagne she'd just aspirated. Hearing the word tanked in the context of her hoped-forbestseller was like watching the New Year's ball drop over Times Squareand then detonate. "I'm uh sorry, I must have misheard you. It sounded like you said"
"Tanked, bit the dust, bought the big onetake your pick." Pat slapped the top of her bun back on, picked up the burger and sank her teeth in for a sloppy bite. "Publishing is a tough business and, as the saying goes, 'them's the breaks.'"
Oh, God. Becky felt as though the Grinch had stolen her Christmas, not just the tree but all the trimmings, including her favorite Christmas carols and her goodwill toward men. "B-but the sales on the launch book were solid and the reviews on this book were all"
"Raves," Pat finished for her, ketchup dribbling down the side of her mouth. The senior editor slid her side plate of crispy thin fries toward Becky. "Try a pomme frite. They're delish with this Dijon mayonnaise."
Becky resisted the urge to slap a hand over her forehead, which had begun pounding like a bad hip-hop beat. As if a strip of deep-fried potato with a fancy French name could possibly make her feel better. "Thanks, but I'll pass."
Pat picked up a fry and stabbed it into the space between them. "Know what differentiates my star authors from midlist schmucks? It's not talent, though sure, talent helps. It's not looks, though those don't hurt, either. It's moxie, balls, perseverancetake your pick. Today's bestsellers, Becky, are all writers who've persevered, who've done whatever it took to claw their way back to the top of the industry heap. You have to reinvent yourself. Who was that silent film actress who said 'failure isn't the falling down but the staying down.' It's time to make like the Nike ads and just do it."
The slogan-packed pep talk had Becky feeling more panicked than inspired. "Okay, I'll reinvent myself, but how? I mean, I thought that's what I was doing by blending romantic erotica with a mystery element."
Pat nodded, her sprayed-in-place platinum hair reminiscent of Meryl Streep's in The Devil Wore Prada. "And it was high-concept, very high-conceptfor its time."
For its time. The gale force of those three chilling words knocked Becky back against the booth seat. The point was, she was dated, she was done. Pat might as well pull a miniature bugle out of her Fendi shoulder bag, play some taps and make it official.
"The problem is the mainstream market for genre fiction has been shrinking steadily. It's only the established star authors who've managed to hold on to their spots. Midlist up-and-comers like you are getting squeezed out. You came on the scene a few years too late to break in. Under the circumstances, I can't offer you another multibook contract. The fact is, I can't offer you a contract at all."
So much for those forecasted fresh starts and dazzling opportunities. With no regular paycheck to fall back on, she'd been counting on her advance to pay the bills for the coming year. "But I thought you said"
"That was before the feedback from the reader poll we ran from our Web site rolled in. Readers are burned out on Angelina's bed-hopping lifestyle."
Feeling queasy, Becky pushed her salad entrée away. "But I thought her willingness to put herself out there sexually was what they liked about her?"
Pat passed a bright-pink thumbnail over her front teeth and shook her head. "Not anymore they don't. They want to see her meet her match and settle down with a sexy male counterpart."
Becky couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Are you saying readers want Angelina to be monogamous?"
Pat frowned, the deep crease in her brow hinting it must be time for her next Botox treatment. Ordinarily the fifty-something's face was as tight as a twenty-year-old's and as immobile as a mannequin's. "Don't say it like it's a four-letter word. Monogamy is very hip right now. Even if it's serial monogamy, readers like to see one guy and one girl at a time."
Becky laid a hand alongside her temple where the pounding had segued into thousands of tiny needles jabbing away. "But Angelina doesn't stay in any one place long enough to form long-term relationships, romantic or otherwise. That's the glamour of her job as a crime-solving secret agent. She's always on the go."
"And she can still be on the go, only instead of just designer luggage she'll travel with a sexy partner." Pat dusted crumbs from her fingers and leaned in as though to share a confidence. "Angelina needs a man who's not just another pretty face but who's her match in every way. A man's man but not a Neanderthal, an American version of James Bond sans the tuxedo and the shaken-not-stirred martini, a guy's guy who's also sexy, gutsy, smart and sophisticatedbut not so sophisticated he comes off as a wimp."
Relief flooded Becky. Her editor hadn't written her off. Pat was still on her side, still in there pitching for her. Her career wasn't dead. She was just experiencing one of those annoying setbacks most writers cycled through at some point in their careers. Like a bad menstrual period or a zit that took extra-extra long to clear, eventually this, too, would pass.
"Gotcha!" Buzzing on adrenaline, she nodded profusely and slipped to the edge of her seat. "I'll get to work on writing him ASAP. You'll have the revised proposal early next week."
Was it her admittedly overactive imagination at work or did Pat suddenly look the tiniest bit uncomfortable? "That's the best part. You don't have to create him. He's, uh already created."
Becky was feeling more confused by the minute. "Already created? But how "
Dropping her gaze, Pat played with the lone fry left on her plate. "Ever read any of Adam Maxwell's 'Drake's Adventures' books?"
The sucker punch hit Becky dead-on, a direct shot to the solar plexus that again had her choking on her champagne. "Adam Maxwell. The Adam Maxwell! If you're suggesting what I think you are, my answer is no, no way. Not on your lifeor mine."
Of all the writers to propose teaming her with, Adam Maxwell was the very worst Pat could have come up with. The reclusive author rarely ventured forth from his home in New Hampshire's White Mountains, but Becky couldn't fault him for that. Introversion was a forgivable failing, particularly among writers. When you spent the majority of your waking hours creating splendid, larger-than-life fictional characters, finding real flesh-and-blood human beings to measure up was no small feat. Occupation aside, Maxwell was a native New Englander and New Englanders had a reputation for keeping to themselves. No, if Adam Maxwell had stuck with banging out his bestsellers from behind bolted cabin doors, Becky would have no beef with him.
It was the outlandish things he said when he did venture out into the public eye that set her blood boiling. In the interview he'd given just after his second book hit the bestseller lists, he'd shown himself to be a chauvinistic jerk. A year later, his remark likening romance novels to "housewife porn" still stuck in Becky's craw. Ever since reading that quote in the New Yorker, she and her fellow romance writer buddies had voted Maxwell the still-living white male novelist they could feel good about hating. Who was he to judge another writer's work, anyway? He penned action-adventure novels. It's not like he was friggin' Hemingway.
Pat dropped the fry and looked up. "I love your writing, Becky, you know I do, but with these disappointing numbers, I can't sell you upstairs. Teaming you with Adam Maxwell would be a way to keep you in the game, maybe even boost you into the bestseller league. What do you say?"
Their pretty blond server sidled up, saving Becky from having to answer. "Can I bring you any coffee or dessert?"
Becky opened her mouth to ask what decadent desserts they might have on the menuin some cultures, chocolate was considered medicine, after allbut Pat cut her off, handing over her credit card. "Go ahead and run this, and please put a move onor vite vite as they say in Paris."
"Whatever." The girl rolled her eyes and sped away as only a tall girl wearing comfortably flat shoes could.
Pat turned back to the table, gaze dropping to the Dolce & Gabbana lizard-embossed print bangle watch cuffing her right wrist. "Sorry, doll, but I really have to dash. I have a meeting across town with another author and catching a cab this time of day is going to be murder."
Fighting the sinking sense she'd just had the publishing equivalent of the Last Supper, or in this case, Last Lunch, Becky nodded. "That's okay. I need to think things over anyway."
The waitress returned in record time. Pat signed, snapped the vinyl bill holder shut and dropped the receipt into her purse. "The office will be closed tomorrow for the holiday but call me on my cell before you head back to D.C." Pulling on her hot-pink trench coat, she slid out of the booth. "Remember, there's a jungle filled with hungry young writers salivating for the chance to snag your spot and be the next Rebecca St. Claire."
Elbows sinking onto the table, Becky watched the older woman head out the door, the warning words ringing in her ears like a blast of New Year's noisemakers. She was a good writer, a damned good writer, but in a business as fickle as publishing no one was so good they couldn't be replaced.
The waitress returned to clear the table and pick up the check. She glanced over at Becky's untouched lunch. "You want a box for that?"
"No, thanks." Becky felt certain the smell of lime vinaigrette and grilled shrimp would forever be paired in her memory with the gut-wrenching feeling of failure.
Handing over the salad, she caught herself studying the girl's fresh face, mane of shiny, straight, blond hair and model svelte bodyand felt the sinking sense of insecurity she'd spent the past year and a small fortune in self-help books trying to get over.
Shoving the vinyl folder into her change apron, the server asked, "Can I get you anything else?"
Becky hesitated. She did want something else, and in this case it wasn't a cellulite-free ass, straight blond hair or even the extra vertical inches that made it okay to wear sensible flats instead of nosebleed-high heels. If faced with a similar state of emergency, her fictional heroine, Angelina Talbot wouldn't hesitate to soothe herself with her signature cocktail.
"As a matter of fact, I'd like a double Bombay Sapphire martini, straight up with an olive, not a twist. Oh, and make it shaken, not stirred."
She might not be a British bombshell sniffing out kidnappers and murderous foreign agents, but it had turned out to be one roller-coaster ride of a day.
"Teaming me with a romance writer is your idea of a career jump start? You've got to be joking." Adam MaxwellMaxstared at his editor, her latest editorial "suggestion" spearing the space between them like a stingray's barbed whiptail.
"It's no joke, Max." Seated across from him in the Hotel Chelsea's Serena Bar and Lounge, Pat reached for her drink, the Serena specialty cocktail known as the Pink Bitch. Under the circumstances, the beverage struck Max as remarkably apropos. "My instincts are telling me that pairing your Drake Dundee with Rebecca St. Claire's Angelina Talbot may just be the marketing move that takes both your careers to the next level."
Glancing at the glass in his hand, Max half wondered if the single sip of Macallan single-malt Scotch he'd taken might have adversely affected his hearing. "Sometimes the next level is down."
Pat leaned over and picked at the appetizer plate of hummus, pita bread triangles and spiced olives sitting on the circular chrome cocktail table between them. Popping an olive into her mouth, she said, "I want you to do this book with Rebecca St. Claire. Think of it as a creative experiment. One book is all I'm asking."
Max shook his head. "I don't care if it's one book or a hundred and one books, the answer is still no. There's a reason I've never had a writing partnerI've never wanted one. I'm a solo actperiod."
That wasn't entirely true. When Elaina was alive and still reasonably well, they'd sit up nights over an open bottle of wine or freshly brewed pot of coffee and brainstorm. Playing the "what if" game, she'd called it. Trust his wife to turn plotting a book into recreation rather than work.
He'd lost her to cancer the year before on New Year's Day, and he still hadn't gotten used to cooking dinner for one or sleeping alone or coming home to an empty house. If it wasn't for writing, he wasn't sure how he would have gotten through the past twelve months. Creating a fictional universe of colorful, noisy characters made it easier to block out the deafening silence. Once he'd forced himself to start working again, he'd quickly finished the book he'd set aside and then fired off two more in rapid succession. His adventuring Aussie hero, Drake Dundee, was too busy blazing new trails and tracking new treasure to stop long enough to feel much beyond an explorer's thrill of discovery. Bringing a fictional love interestand a real-life romance writerinto the picture promised to seriously mess with Max's formula, not to mention his head.
Pat leaned back in her seat, the lifting of one pencil-shaded brow bringing to mind Cruella De Vil. "A sixty-percent sell-through would be considered respectable for a first book, but for a veteran author, it's pretty disappointing. Either we come up with a plan to bring your sales back up or you can expect to see your print run on the next book slashed to smithereens, and the marketing budget right along with it."
So Pat wanted to play hardball, did she? The prospect of losing control over both Drake's destiny, as well as the real life he'd spent the past year pulling back together had him lashing out.
"I've worked too damned hard building up the Adam Maxwell brand to blow it because the sales numbers for one book came in on the low end."
Drake had started off his adventures married to a tall, lovely Greek-American cryptologist, Isabel. The character was a thinly veiled version of Elaina. After her death, Max had killed off Isabel. A curare-laced arrow hit her in the left breast, the spot where Elaina's first cancerous lump was found. Giving Drake a new love interest would be a betrayal of his wife's memory. It was out of the question.
Pat picked up a pita point and dipped it in the hummus. Nibbling the edge, she said, "The Angelina Talbot books are genre benders, a blending of romantic erotica and mystery. Folding the romance and mystery elements into an action-adventure scenario could boost sales for both series. Who knows what the commercial potential might be? And I'm not just talking books. It's not unheard of for a movie screenplay to be based on a blockbuster novel."
Pat must be under some big-time pressure from her boss to sign him up because she was really putting on the razzle-dazzle. Feeling as though he was on the receiving end of an exploded bag of New Year's confettiannoying, unnecessary and damned messy to clean upMax shook his head. "Being a novelist and writing the best damned book I possibly can has always been a big enough dream for me."
Sticking a liver-spotted hand inside her suitcase-size pink purse, Pat pulled out a mass market paperback and handed it over. "Before you decide, give Beckgive Rebecca's work a read. This is her latest. It's gotten rave reviews, including Publishers Weekly and a nice write-up in the Chicago Tribune, too."
Max glanced at the book, not bothering to hide his distaste. The campy cover featured a slender, dark-haired female wearing a low-cut black dress, her perfect breasts standing out in silhouette along with the smoking pistol she pointed. A cone of light framed in rifle crosshairs suggested an unseen target. Talk about clichéd.
"I don't care if the woman's books are the best god-damned things to come off the printing press since Gutenberg invented it, my answer of no still stands."