The road to Cami’s dreams started at the River Bend casino, where she dealt blackjack and created Jackie, the protagonist of her debut novel, Double Down Blues. Jackie was everything Cami was not: reckless, sensuous, pretty, and thin, an alter ego Cami emulated enthusiastically. Blues became a surprise bestseller, and the former Leona Camille Lingo, a bookish, overweight schoolgirl from Phoenix, became Cami Taylor, an attractive, sophisticated author living in New York.
The transformation was complete.
Cami’s boyfriend, Joel, wants to marry her, buy a house on Long Island, and raise a familya life that isn’t even close to Cami’s idea of happiness. Her therapist suggests compromise and trust, but Cami bolts like a deer. She breaks off her eighteen-month relationship with Joel and embarks on a course she believes will secure her future happiness. But a nasty surprise waits around the corner, one she should’ve seen coming. Cami finds herself squared off against an enemy that isn’t impressed by her cynicism, her stubbornness, or her reinvention. What follows is a fight to the death, but who will be the one left standing?
|Publisher:||Morgan James Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)|
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Even after everything that's gone my way, I still feel like an outsider waiting for someone to open a door and let me in. I huddle over my writing desk — my refuge and the only furniture I kept from Arizona. It's situated to catch the morning light coming through the apartment's tall bay window. Its polished plane is uncluttered, an open space with room to think and work, a space on which my hands now fidget. Within easy reach are a manuscript, a Grand Canyon souvenir mug filled with number two pencils, and a steaming cup of Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee laced with cream. Everything is accessible. Familiar. Safe.
On the street below, the foot traffic has picked up with morning commuters. Ants marching into another day of toil. A few blocks down the street, brick and iron and asphalt give way to a green slice of Central Park. Crowded elm trees overhang the low stone wall that keeps park in and city out. Their new leaves flutter in a chill spring breeze, and the only cloud in sight is the one hanging over my head.
New York, so foreign from everything I knew, sent for me. The first siren song was a black-and-white photograph. The photographer captured a quintessential urban street in the smudged shadows of predawn. In the foreground, a portly grocer in a starched white apron leaned far over a bin of fruit, as if to arrange every apple perfectly, even on the back row. On the other side of the street, a young couple in evening clothes strolled toward the camera, each with right foot forward in midstride, their heads together in a private moment. A grainy glow reflected off a puddle with just enough detail to suggest neon and Broadway. The picture was in National Geographic, and the caption read, "A new day kisses the old good-bye in the Manhattan dawn." I spent hours dissecting it, and at twelve years of age, found myself seduced by a threadbare and world-weary city.
When I was twenty-six and experienced enough to hold my own, I moved to New York. After a few months, I was no longer awed by the city's magnificent architecture or overwhelmed by Manhattan's sprawling human reef. I no longer heard the constant roar of taxis and buses and speech, and the city's arrogant pageantry no longer turned my head.
Eventually, I saw past the shell game, the sleight of hand. Expectations that had been disappointed far too often hid behind facades of calloused boredom. Eyes averted in clichéd New York apathy were feeble defenses protecting a glimmer of hope that trust, one day, might be found. Even the brashest up-and-comers, if caught alone in unguarded moments at corner tables, wore hesitant expressions that belied their confidence. They would be broken too, soon enough, and they knew it.
I wasn't afraid of being broken, so I braved the city's indifference and bared my tender pale throat in the hope I would be taken in. I endured many lonely nights in my newly purchased Upper West Side apartment, accepting with humble gratitude the occasional favors New York sent my way.
I reel in all the reminiscing over what brought me to this town and tighten the terrycloth robe around my thinning body. At times like these, I feel I could just melt away to nothing, and I curse Joel for bringing on this black despair. Last night, my latest boyfriend — if you could call him that — anyway, Joel suddenly told me that even after a year and a half together, he still feels like a stranger with me.
"What does that mean?" I asked as I propped on one elbow and pulled up the sheet.
He leaned back and sighed. Joel is drop-dead handsome, with fair skin that contrasts with his dark hair and eyebrows — perfectly formed eyebrows. Stunning. His eyes are that rare aquamarine, as clear and warm as Caribbean seas. And his smell! Clean and musky, a mix of aftershave and his body's essence. Sometimes, when he comes to me after a show, he carries the sharp odors of spirit gum and sweat and the hot energy of backstage.
I used a line in a story once with Joel in mind: Eat him up with a spoon. That thought flashed through my mind as I watched him rest his crown of thick black hair, messy from bed, against my headboard. His full lips, the shadowed chin that needs shaving twice a day — no doubt about it, Joel is easy on the eyes. I'm addicted to the side glances and double takes we get when we're out together, even in this town.
"I don't know, Cami," he said, his mouth drawing tight in frustration. "You're just so — what?" He shook his head. "Sometimes, sweetheart, it feels like I could be anyone — any guy — and it wouldn't matter. Sometimes, it feels like I don't matter to you. Me specifically, I mean."
My face flushed. "So I don't show you enough passion, or what?" "That's not it." He sat up.
He thought I missed the point. Of course, I didn't miss it at all. I knew what he was talking about.
"It's just that sometimes I wonder what, if anything, you feel for me," he said. "It seems like we have this tight relationship, intimate, you know, but I don't think ..." His voice trailed off, but then he quickly launched in again. "You keep me at arm's length. You don't let me in. Not really.
"What's important to you, Cami? Your work? Is that all? Do you care about your family? You never mention them or anything about your life before you moved here. It's like you came from outer space. And you never ask me about my family."
"That's not true."
"Oh, well, when I bring them up. What I mean is you never initiate it. Our relationship is in this capsule, separated from the rest of our lives. You don't seem interested in anything but what show we're going to or where we're going to eat, or whatever. Nothing important. Nothing that matters."
I swore and sat up. He watched me, as if waiting for me to defend myself. Or break.
"How do you feel about me?" he finally asked.
I bit my tongue and got out of bed without answering. I slipped into the bathroom to dress, because it's impossible to be angry and naked at the same time. Too vulnerable. Even when I was a kid, I hated to wear my pajamas when I was mad. If I had a fight with my parents at bedtime, I always had to put on my clothes again until the anger had worn off.
I went into the kitchen without looking at him and got a diet soda from the fridge. Then I rummaged around in the cabinets and drawers until I found a squirreled-away pack of Marlboro Lights. I sat at the kitchen table and lit up. Joel, fully dressed, came in just as I was stamping out the first one in a saucer. He sat down across from me. "I thought you quit."
"Look, Cami, I really care about you." He paused, and I lit another cigarette. "But I'm tired of wondering where we're going. Tired of wondering how you feel, if you feel anything at all. Sometimes, it seems like you're kinda — this is a terrible thing to say — but it seems like you're kinda dead emotionally. Your characters feel all kinds of things, but do you? It's almost like you're putting up a front all the time."
His voice was gentle, but every word was a sharp blade right into my soul. Fear pounded in my ears, and my only instinct was to circle the wagons. Slowly and deliberately, I drew down on the cigarette and asked in a smoke-choked rasp, "What do you want from me, Joel?"
He reached across the table and took my hand. Wrapped around mine, his fingers were warm and dry. "I care about you, Cam. I just want to get inside you —" I snorted and exhaled the smoke in a thick jet. It was abusive, I know. A cheap shot. But it was out before I could stop it.
His hand withdrew instantly. "Touché," he said. He slapped his palms on the table and stood. "You know, I have a friend who sees a really good therapist. You should think about it. Her name's Wortham. Sylvia Wortham."
All of that happened last night, and this morning I woke up with a grunge mouth from all the cigarettes I smoked after he left. I'm obviously in no mood to work, so I pull back my hair and throw on my sweats to go for a run. My lungs are heavy, resisting the abuse, but I run the full five-mile circuit of my regular route anyway. Afterward, I walk to the corner of Fifty-Ninth and Fifth, where I sprawl on a bench.
Head back. Eyes closed. Nothing but the morning sun on my face and the sounds of the city. Cars. Buses. Horns. Voices everywhere. Carriage horses snort and knock their shod hooves against the asphalt. The cool temperature mercifully mutes the odors of horse dung and the stench of urine when a homeless guy passes too close.
I don't have to look to visualize the people on the street. Manhattan lays out a daily smorgasbord of humanity. Old and young, rich and poor, bourgeois and Bolshevik. Shuffling lunatics. A courier or two. Tourists and locals speaking every language and dialect on the planet. All together, they form a single living organism, a New York amoeba, shaping itself to its sidewalk container, shrinking from the overflowing wastebaskets and ubiquitous vendors. When the light changes, its tentative pseudopod reaches forward and spans the street in a long skinny stretch. Then the organism reforms on the next corner. I can be part of that, a bit of DNA that's different from the rest but definitely connected to the strand. I can almost imagine myself whole again, centered.
Until I get an overwhelming sense of someone's attention fastened on me.
I open one eye and squint at the well-groomed silhouette of Hillary Bachman, my publicist.
"Cami? Cami Taylor? Is that you?"
Of course she barely recognizes me. No makeup. Dirty hair. Why her, today, of all people?
She sits primly on the bench beside me in her size 2 Chanel suit. I'm the thinnest I've been in my life but sitting next to Hillary makes me feel fat.
"So," she says, "have you been out for a run?"
I'm so self-conscious that I can't even feel superior about her asking such a stupid question. I'd give anything for my sunglasses right now. "Yeah. I was just cooling down."
"Well, dear, you certainly picked a good spot. I'm on my way to meet a client at the Plaza. It's such a beautiful morning that I decided to walk."
"Oh, he's fine. He's fishing upstate this week."
Hillary's husband, Ethan Bachman, is the senior partner in the law firm of Bachman, Strauss, and Leichmann. This prestigious station in life affords him and Hillary a Park Avenue address and a summerhouse in Bar Harbor, Maine. I spent a week at the Bar Harbor place last year. It sits on a hill overlooking the town and the bay. Every morning, I sat on the front porch and watched an enormous ferry depart for Nova Scotia. I wrote a story set in the little town and sold it to a New England literary journal.
Hillary works as a diversion. She's good at what she does when she does it, but she doesn't mind canceling an appointment for something more important, like a bridge game. I don't have any complaints though. On my modest publicity tour, she put me up at the best hotels and allowed as much free time as she could manage for sightseeing, no small feat on the budget allotted to an emerging author. The only thing that really bothers me is that I get the impression she feels sorry for me.
Not long after I moved to New York, I let Hillary fix me up with her nephew Paul. Paul was all right — a little self-absorbed, but decent company for dinner or whatever. We dated long enough for me to let things go too far. I didn't have any strong feelings for him one way or the other, but we drifted into an affair because, well, let's face facts, it was no big thing to me.
I'm sure I sent a lot of mixed signals, depending on how much he was getting on my nerves at any particular moment. Eventually, it got weird between us and he stopped calling. That was that, or so I thought. But afterward, it seemed as if Hillary and her husband thought they had discovered some gaping need in me. Nothing was ever said, but they looked at me differently after Paul. It wasn't my imagination either. I actually saw pity in their eyes. It made me wonder what he'd told them. He didn't even know me, for God's sake.
"He asked how you were the other day," Hillary says.
"Why, Ethan, of course." She looks at me curiously. "I told him it's been ages since I've seen you."
"Oh. Sorry for being preoccupied. I'm afraid my mind is full of my novel this morning."
She checks her watch and stands. "Well, I should go anyway. Let's have lunch soon."
"Yes, let's. I'll call you."
My solitude is sweet as I stroll home through the park. I walk slowly, savoring the fresh air. The sun is high and growing warm. The light, the chattering birds, and the cheerful faces I pass buoy me enough to make me believe this day might be salvaged, even though thinking about Paul is a sucker punch to my already bruised ego.
I pass a vacant kiosk, and my image in the dark window stops me. I have stared at my reflection in mirrors for as long as I can remember. Not admiring my appearance, but wondering what I'm doing on the planet, a question that still hangs unanswered in the happy morning air.
I turn away and finish my journey home, stopping in the lobby to retrieve a bundle of mail from the box. Speaking to no one. My gaze pushes along the floor, then up the stairs as I haul myself to the second floor.
The hallway is deserted. At the door to my apartment, I fumble with the key. Before I know it, my breath catches, and the pieces of mail slip away, falling to the floor. I close my eyes and rest my forehead against the doorjamb. Tears rise from my belly and splatter onto the bills and advertisements as I slide to my knees.CHAPTER 2
It's after three in the morning when I reach a decision about seeing the psychiatrist Joel recommended. I'm standing at the kitchen counter, throwing down a shot of Jack Daniel's. I'm not much of a drinker. I seldom have more than a glass of wine with dinner or an occasional aperitif. Joel drinks wine like water, so I keep the makeshift liquor cabinet above the refrigerator stocked with good cab. But the situation at hand calls for stronger medicine. I've counted all the punched-tin ceiling squares I care to for one night, and tomorrow's another wasted day if I'm fried from no sleep. The bottle of Jack was pushed to the back of the cabinet, the forgotten leftover of a forgotten guest.
The first shot doesn't go down easy. I gulp it in a hot sluice that feels like it has no business in my throat. I pound down a second and grip the counter, considering whether or not my stomach will hold up. My gut finally warms to the job, so I move to the table with the bottle and the glass and get serious. First thing in the morning, I'll look up Sylvia Wortham and give her a call. But was Sylvia the therapist or Joel's friend? I can't figure it out.
* * *
A sudden, head-shattering clanging startles me out of my coma, and I swing and swipe in the direction of the nightstand. The Big Ben windup clatters to the floor, but the ringing doesn't stop. I kick and flail myself free of the bed's cotton tentacles and stumble blindly around the apartment until I locate the telephone in the kitchen.
"Hello?" I croak as the machine picks up. The recorded greeting competes with me in a discordant clamor. I slump over the table, waiting for it to play out. The sight of the open whiskey bottle brings on a stabbing headache. I push away a pink Fiestaware saucer filled with cigarette butts, every one smoked down to the filter, testifying that I resorted to relights. Oh, God.
The greeting finally ends. "Hello?" I say.
"Hello, Ms. Lingo?" says the caller. A solicitor. My telephone number is listed under my birth name in the Manhattan phone book. Well, close to it anyway. L. C. Lingo, not the cumbersome Leona Camille. This was Mom's idea in case of a family emergency, but I only get nuisance calls.
"I don't want any," I say.
"Excuse me? I'm so sorry to bother you. Did I wake you?" The woman's accent is definitely Southern.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, you did."
"Oh, I'm so sorry. Please forgive me. Is there another time when I could call you back?"
"No, there isn't. Like I said, I don't want any. And put this number on your no-call list."
"Can I just —"
"God, lady, are you deaf?" Is she an idiot or what? I pull the phone away from my ear and am about to end the call when I hear her say something about family.
Has dad had another stroke? Or something worse, something so bad that my mom can't call? Sourness pushes up from my stomach. "Are you calling from Phoenix?" I ask. "Is it my dad?"
"Oh, no. It's nothing like that. I'm just down the street at the Essex House. I don't — forgive me — I didn't mean to startle you so."
I exhale slowly. The day won't be spoiled by a family crisis. "What then? Why are you calling?" Silence.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "All In"
Copyright © 2019 L.K. Simonds.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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